In March, soon after returning from Ahmedabad, where he had helped Mumbai qualify for the Ranji Trophy knockouts after four years, Shams Mulani told his mother Shirin that he will return to the city to “win the only age-group championship he was yet to win.”

He was referring to the Col. C. K. Nayudu (Under-25) Trophy. Come April 24 and the southpaw, who turned 25 recently, walked the talk. “I just had to do it, this was my last chance to help the team win the C. K. Nayudu Trophy.”

Prolific wicket-taker

Having bowled a whopping 157 overs in three weeks in the Ranji Trophy for a 29-wicket haul, Mulani was rested for the league stage of the Nayudu Trophy. As soon as he recovered and joined the squad for the knockouts, he literally carried on from he had left in the Ranji Trophy in the same stadium complex.

In the three knockout ties, Mulani tallied a whopping 32 wickets at an excellent average of 12.15. His performances over the last couple of months are as extraordinary as Cheteshwar Pujara’s in 2008-09.

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Pujara had scored three triple hundreds - two in the C. K. Nayudu Trophy and one in Ranji Trophy - in a month’s span. In 2021-22, Mulani picked nine five-wicket hauls and five ten-wicket hauls in just six games. Even with the willow, he has been instrumental in Mumbai’s success.

Rearguard efforts

In the Ranji Trophy, Mumbai, after conceding a 164-run lead to Goa, was precariously placed at 208 for seven in a must-win match. With an effective lead of 44, Mulani and Tanush Kotian added 116 runs for the eighth wicket to take the game away from Goa.

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Then, in the C. K. Nayudu Trophy quarterfinals, despite Mulani’s 11-wicket haul, when he walked in to bat on the last morning at the Narendra Modi Stadium ‘B’ ground, Mumbai was staring down the barrel. Chasing 244 for victory, Mumbai was 50 for six. With Suved Parkar as an ally, Mulai stitched an unbroken 194-run partnership to see his team home.

In both the games, Mulani played the second fiddle and yet stamped his class and authority on the game. In fact, it is his ability to convert challenges into opportunities that has helped him succeed against the odds.

Ranji Trophy

Bouncing back from setbacks

In fact, he has the knack of bouncing back from a setback. As a 14-year-old, after breaking into Mumbai’s Under-16 team for the Vijay Merchant Trophy in 2011-12, he was dropped after just one game and warmed the bench for the rest of the season. “I was dropped because we had two more left-arm spinners who were also decent batters. It hit me pretty hard and I started working even harder on my fitness, my skills,” Mulani says.

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“My dad used to tell me you have to be in the top three in any team so that no one can think of dropping you. Next year, the first match I played, against Saurashtra, I scored a hundred and we won the Vijay Merchant pretty convincingly.”

A similar incident occurred during the 2018-19 season. Just before he was selected in India Emerging Players squad for the Emerging players’ (U-23) Asia Cup in December 2018, Mulani had had his second major setback.

Col. C. K. Nayudu Trophy

He was dropped from Mumbai’s team after his debut game. He did get another opportunity three weeks later but failed to impress. “Again it hit me hard. I hadn’t bowled well in comparison with my team-mates. Ranji Trophy is a stage where you have to bring your ‘A’ game to the fore all the time,” Mulani says.

“One slip-up and it costs the team dearly. I realised that performance was the key. I reflected on it, I knew after a couple of games, I hadn’t bowled well. Told myself you’re not sitting out again.”

He again walked the talk. In the 2019-20 Ranji season, he was Mumbai’s highest wicket-taker with 26 wickets, a tally he has overhauled in just three games this season. All through the pandemic, he kept on working tirelessly at the Bengal Club nets at the hallowed Shivaji Park.

Coming of age

Shivaji Park has been his alma mater, having been selected by renowned coaches Padmakar Shivalkar, Pravin Amre and Sandesh Kawle at a summer camp as a nine-year-old. By then, he was already training regularly for almost four years with veteran coach Hemant Hadkar at the Matunga Gymkhana grounds.

It was Mulani’s father Zakir, a mechanical engineer with Tata Power , who had convinced his mother Shirin, a homemaker, to let a young five-and-a-half-year old have a go on a cricket field. He may have been selected as the youngest protege at Hadkar sir’s nets back then, but his recent exploits have hinted that Shams has started coming of age as a cricketer.

While listening to her son’s desire of succeeding in the C.K. Nayudu Trophy knockouts, Shirin would be wondering all the hard work early on in his cricketing sojourn was worth it. After all, she would board a bus from Chembur to Dadar - a 45-minute journey - carrying the cricket kit of a five-and-half year-old in one hand and a two-month-old newborn on her shoulders - every day.

But Shams, who credits all the coaches he has worked with at various levels for instilling the belief in him of succeeding against the odds, ensures his parents cannot just sit reminiscing in the past. He has already spelt out his next target. “Now I want to lift the Ranji Trophy in Bengaluru next month.”