While most of India’s cricket fans will likely be tuning in to India’s Asia Cup opener against Bangladesh come 24 February, another cricketing powerhouse will be attempting to win a trophy of its own.
The Ranji Trophy final begins the same day as the Asia Cup main draw and Mumbai will be seeking their 41st title in their 45th final. If they should emerge victorious against Saurashtra, it will go a long way towards easing the pain of the previous season.
Even though Mumbai reached the semi-finals in 2014-15, it was a turbulent and unsatisfying journey. Suryakumar Yadav was sacked as captain after an ugly spat with some of his team-mates and current captain Aditya Tare was installed as his replacement. Mumbai then suffered their first innings defeat in 64 years against Tamil Nadu. This after losing to Jammu & Kashmir and being dismissed for 101 by Railways.
While the team recovered somewhat after that, they only made the knock-outs because results in three other games went their way in the final round of matches. Then came perhaps the worst moment of all as the team was skittled for 44 in the semi-final by Karnataka, their second lowest-score ever. After not losing by an innings for 64 years, they did it twice in one season.
It felt then as if the sheen the team had possessed for so long was now getting dull. When Wasim Jaffer, Ranji’s leading run-scorer and Mumbai cricket’s indefatigable pillar for the last decade, announced he was leaving prior to this season, the sheen got a little duller.
It meant only all-rounder Abhishek Nayar was over the age of thirty and the fate of the India’s finest team was left to a group of players half of whom were 25 years old or younger. There was also a dearth of international experience. In the 2012-13 final, the Mumbai team that beat Saurashtra had five international cricketers, including Jaffer and a certain Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.
In this team, only two remained – Nayar and Dhawal Kulkarni. The batting, always Mumbai’s strength, appeared lightweight.
But appearances turned out to be deceiving. The 21-year-old Shreyas Iyer has had a season for the ages, racking up 1204 runs, already the fifth highest total in the history of the competition and he has a match to go. There’s a good chance he could pass Wasim Jaffer’s Mumbai record of 1260 set in 2008-09 before the dust has settled and the prizes handed out. And he’s done it at a remarkable strike-rate of 93.84, which is to say he has had a Sehwag-like impact on matches, thereby allowing Mumbai to push for outright wins rather than settle for first-innings leads.
Iyer’s has not been a one-man show either. Akhil Herwadkar, another 21-year-old, is in second place with 879 runs while Suryakumar Yadav, who made a crucial century in the semi-final against Madhya Pradesh, checks in ninth place with 750 runs.
In other words, Mumbai has once again proved its ability to churn out batsmen is unsurpassed in the country, this time with a twist as Iyer and Yadav in particular prefer to hammer bowlers into submission rather than grind them down, which has been the traditional Mumbai approach.
Tare is also acutely aware of Mumbai's standing in this competition, and the pressure that is there on the team before every Ranji Trophy campaign. "That's the way we are brought up. We know we have a rich history, we know we have won it 40 times out of 81," Tare told Firstpost earlier in the season. "A 50 percent win ratio and winning 40 domestic titles is a great achievement really motivates and inspires us and that's what we are set out to do."
Tare has done a splendid job keeping the side united, alongside coach Chandrakant Pandit, who knows what it takes to win the Ranji Trophy both as a player and a coach.
“Getting all out in 15 overs is not acceptable by any means, especially at this stage of the tournament," Tare said after his team was bowled out for 44 in the semis last season. "But yeah, we have had off days in the entire season. The best thing is how we come out of it. We have to look up to that first.”
They have come out of it brilliantly this season and now Tare and his team stand on the cusp of redemption. Will they earn it? Mumbai’s cricket history, and the way this team has played so far, suggests it would be foolish to bet against them.