The build up to the 2018-19 domestic season was not smooth for Mumbai. Sameer Dighe resigned as coach of the senior team, as did the trainer and physiotherapist. Balwinder Singh Sandhu quit the Cricket Improvement Committee less than a month after being appointed as a member, and the Ajit Agarkar-led four-member senior selection committee was criticised for allegedly not watching enough local matches. A frustrated Amol Muzumdar, one of the members of CIC, put out an explosive post on Facebook last month saying that he is irritated with “3rd rate people” who are “disrupting” Mumbai cricket.
Pushed to the wall, Mumbai’s resilient nature came to the fore as they started the season with winning Vijay Hazare Trophy title. Shreyas Iyer, who replaced Aditya Tare as captain, described the victory as “amazing”.
“We decided yesterday that we will play as a final and not just another match,” Iyer said. “What sets us apart is that all of us gel really well. Even off the field we stay together, cherish each other’s (success), play around with a little bit of tantrums and fun. This is what the team is made up of.”
Established domestic giants with 41 Ranji Trophy titles against their name, it was a momentous occasion for Mumbai as they beat arch-rivals Delhi by four wickets in the final in Bangalore on Saturday (20 October) and made up for the lost ground in white-ball cricket. The last time they had won the inter-state 50-over competition was in 2006-07 when the tournament was still a season away from being named after the legend.
Muzumdar, Mumbai’s captain in that campaign and now a commentator, in an illuminating chat with ESPNcricinfo said that the focus in the city’s maidaans has always been on the game’s longer version, and with the season usually starting with Ranji Trophy the energies of the players is mostly drained by the time red-ball cricket gives way to the shorter format.
With Twenty20 leagues changing the global language of the game, Mumbai could not hide behind this excuse any more. Having won the 50-over competition just nine times in the past (five as Bombay and four as Mumbai), the association recognised the need to fill up the gap. The inaugural Mumbai T20 league earlier this year was a step in that direction. Shivam Dubey, who was easily the find of that league with his clean hitting and ability to break partnerships, played a crucial role in Mumbai’s title finish.
His 13 wickets in the Vijay Hazare Trophy including figures of 10-2-29-3 in the final made for impressive viewing as did his two sixes to provide finishing touches to the campaign. His role as the fourth seamer in the final ensured that Delhi never got off the hook after losing three wickets to the new ball. Not always known for their strong bowling in limited-overs cricket, Mumbai made a difference in that area this season with Dhawal Kulkarni and Shams Mulani, the left-arm spinner, finishing among the top six wicket-takers. Tushar Deshpande, who finished with 15 wickets, and Dubey supported them well. Mumbai dismissed teams in seven out of nine completed matches. In other words, only twice were the opposition able to bat out the full 50 overs against them.
While Bihar were dismissed for 69 in the quarterfinal, Mumbai’s bowling prowess was on full display against Delhi, who notched up 300-plus totals twice in the tournament, in the final. Gautam Gambhir was suffocated, Unmukt Chand’s ego was tickled, Manan Sharma’s uncertain mind was preyed upon and Nitish Rana fell to the short-ball trap. Kulkarni, Deshpande and Dubey picked up eight wickets between them as Delhi were bowled out for 177 in 45.4 overs.
“Our bowling has improved really well,” said Iyer, while sharing that he decided to bowl first in the final because they were confused how the pitch at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium would behave. “They lived up to the expectations and we had planned how we would go up against such and such batsmen, and they really executed plans well. Not only against Delhi, but also against other teams.”
With Prithvi Shaw and Iyer in good touch, the chase was expected to be a breeze but Gambhir’s attacking captaincy and fiery opening spell from Navdeep Saini and Kulwant Khejroliya reduced Mumbai to 40 for 4. They would have been five down soon had Saini not over stepped while getting Siddhesh Lad caught before he had opened his account.
Against any other team Delhi would have fancied to seal the game from that position, but Mumbai’s depth remains unparalleled in the circuit. Even after the departure of Shaw, Ajinkya Rahane, Suryakumar Yadav and Iyer, they still had Tare and Lad.
Both the players have built a reputation for themselves by pulling Mumbai out of the rut on numerous occasion; the only difference during their 105-run stand was that they did it against the white Kookaburra ball and not the red SG ball. With the field up, the counter attacking approach paid off. They hit a total of 15 fours and two sixes during their 23-over association as Delhi lost their fizz.
“They are the batsmen who have performed previously in pressure situations. Today we believed in them because we knew that they would finish off the game,” Iyer said about the duo. “Me and Ajinkya were chatting with one another that they would win us the game. At the back of the mind we had faith in them. Tare has got good experience. He (has) also led Mumbai, so he is a good overall performer.
“We (top order) were also (counter attacking), but we got out. We had to play in the way as they had put an attacking field and if we bogged down they would have come on top,” he added. “You never know had we have lost five-six wickets and the match would have been sealed (in Delhi’s favour). At the same time, our team were going at six runs per over, which was a positive sign for us. We just knew that they (Tare and Lad) had to play out this phase. Delhi did not have a fifth bowler with (Pawan) Negi having got injured as well.”
The match-defining partnership took the mind back to Mumbai's 2015-16 Ranji Trophy final against Saurashtra when they had last won a title. Cheteshwar Pujara dropped Lad at first slip at a crucial juncture, and after that he never allowed Saurashtra an opening. Similarly, against Delhi, Lad regrouped after the early chance and did not play any extravagant stroke till victory was completely in sight. Considering how much he thrives under pressure, it remains a mystery that national selectors or IPL franchises have not shown complete faith in Lad's abilities.
It’s not for Lad or Mumbai to worry about factors beyond their control. With one drought broken and memories of an difficult pre-season slowly fading, the next focus will be on reclaiming the Ranji Trophy. “We hardly get any time to prepare for Ranji. There cannot be any complaints going forward and be prepared for the best,” Iyer shared his vision. “For Ranji, we have got experience. There is going to be a lot of travelling at the same time, and body will be tired. We have to adjust to it, but carry forward the momentum from here and take the positives from this.”