A grand finish

Ajit Agarkar takes a return catch to dismiss S. Aravind and Mumbai has won the Ranji Trophy for the 39th time.-PICS: PTI

It was a wonderful moment for Ajit Agarkar when he closed his hands on a leading edge from S. Aravind when Karnataka was only seven runs away from victory in a pulse-pounding finish. He sprinted in joy. S. Dinakar reports.

The pitch at the Gangothri Glades ground was a marvel. It answered those who doubted whether such a lively track could be prepared in India.

The surface for the Ranji Trophy final at Mysore could have been straight out of Australia or South Africa. The ground-staff of this charming South Indian town deserve credit.

It was not movement alone from a grass-laden surface that the batsmen had to grapple with. The deviation was compounded by bounce. The technique of the batsmen was probed relentlessly. Their footwork and judgment came under the scanner. The ability of the batsmen to handle short pitched deliveries was also under scrutiny.

It was refreshing to see a domestic team having pace as its strength — Karnaraka’s pace trio of A. Mithun, R. Vinay Kumar and S. Aravind sliced through line-ups this season — and opting to stage the final on a green-top. A young Karnataka side had exceeded expectations by progressing to the final. In the final, the side was without the inspirational Rahul Dravid. The host put up a brave fight.

In a largely ill-tempered final, Mumbai’s famous resolve and commitment came to the fore. The side was on the brink more than once but clawed its way back to nail a humdinger by six runs; it was Mumbai’s 39th Ranji Trophy triumph.

The story of the final though was the pitch. It is surfaces such as the one at the Gangothri Glades ground that prepare the aspirants for international cricket. A mountain of runs scored on flat decks has little meaning unless the protagonist in question excels on the bigger stage.

On the first two days, when the ball was zipping off the surface, the batsmen of both the sides were shown up for their limitations. Mumbai, electing to bat, was dismissed for 233. But for wicket-keeperbatsman Vinayak Samant’s feisty 67 and the normally attacking Abhishek Nayar’s dogged batting, the side’s plight would have been worse.

Karnataka fared worse in its first innings, folding up for a mere 130. Apart from opener K. B. Pawan, the rest hardly seemed likely to survive the conditions. The batsmen were not sure about their off-stump and resultantly played away from the body. They opted for extravagant drives when firm pushes in the ‘V’ to deliveries pitched up, a solid defensive stroke or just the plain ‘leave’ would have left the bowlers frustrated.

Batsmen who have delivered on seaming tracks have often been sound back-foot players who can cash in if the ball is lacking in length with cuts, pulls and hooks. In other words, scoring opportunities need to be utilised if the batsman is served up short balls or is provided width.

Here again, judgment and picking the length early are the crucial elements. For instance, if the short-ball is well directed — it may follow the batsman and split him into half — then swaying away from the line would be a better option. Or if the batsman is technically well equipped, he could rise on his toes and keep the ball down with a vertical bat and soft hands.

On the evidence of the first two days of the final, most batsmen on view, including some senior cricketers, had serious technical shortcomings. So much for the runs amassed on flat tracks.

A Ranji Trophy final is not about winning and losing alone. It’s a lot about how many of the young cricketers on view can actually graduate to the next level. There were only three such cricketers from the final at Mysore — Abhimanyu Mithun, Manish Pandey and if he is able to add a yard of pace, Dhawal Kulkarni.

Karnataka’s Mithun, who scalped nine in the final and topped the wicket-taker’s tally for the Ranji season with 47 scalps, is full of possibilities. The strapping paceman has an easy, fluent run-up, and a good wrist position.

He snares batsmen by pitching the ball up and then swinging it away. Mithun also displayed the ability to bring the ball into the right-hander.

He also consumed batsmen with hostile short-pitched bowling with a leg-cordon in place; he was forcing batsmen to fend awkwardly. Mithun rattled the timber with toe-crushers, too. If he does not have a successful career for India, it will come as a surprise.

Kulkarni’s 87 in the first innings proved vital for Mumbai. He also picked up three wickets in Karnataka’s second innings.-

Pandey’s thrill-a-minute 144 in the second innings arrived when the pitch had lost much of its bite. Yet, there was some bounce, carry and movement for the paceman willing to put in effort. The right-hander’s innings was special because of the situation when he walked in. Karnataka, chasing 338 for a historic victory, had lost three wickets for little.

There was immense pressure on the intrepid Pandey and the resolute Ganesh Satish, the fourth wicket pair. Pandey is light on his feet, plays with an uncluttered mind and his bat-speed is incredible. He picks the length quickly and is swift with his response. Whiplash cover-drives, sizzling flicks, twinkle-toed lofted shots and fierce hooks underlined his innings.

Another half an hour of Pandey and Karnataka would have won. He is a man for the future. Pandey has topped the tally of Ranji run-getters for the season with 882 at 63.00. Dhawal Kulkarni bowled capably in the decisive phase of the match on day four. He moved the second new ball both ways and consumed Stuart Binny with a delivery that pitched on middle and sent the off-stump cartwheeling. And a mean off-cutter ended Vinay Kumar’s threatening tenure. Yet, he needs to hit the bat harder; in other words, bowl a heavier ball.

Dhawal’s batting in the second innings after Mithun had ripped through the Mumbai top and middle order — he was wisely promoted by the think tank — was a revelation. His 87 was an effort of a stout forward defence, patience and the ability to find the gaps on the off-side. He rallied with the lower order. But for his effort and an half-century of application by the left-handed Nayar when Karnataka was on the rampage, Mumbai would have surely gone down.

It was also a game where frayed tempers came to the fore. Ajit Agarkar’s controversial run-out on the first day — the Mumbaikar contended the ball was dead when he was out of the crease and argued with the umpires — started a sequence of events that did not project both the teams in favourable light.

Words were constantly exchanged, “At some stages, things went out of hand,” conceded Mumbai skipper Wasim Jaffer. His counterpart Uthappa banged the ball down after snaffling a catch to dismiss Agarkar. When Uthappa was prised out by Agarkar, he was given a send off by the bowler and the fielders.

The umpires had to speak to both the captains on more than one occasion. And Match Referee Subramanium Ramesh was kept busy handing out warnings and fines. While it is heartening that a domestic final is duelled out with much aggression and passion, the players should not cross the line.

Manish Pandey acknowledges the crowd after his brilliant hundred in the second innings. His knock very nearly took Karnataka to victory.-

Agarkar was under the spotlight for the wrong reasons, but his bowling in the second innings dripped with character. He fired out the Karnataka top-order and returned to close out a thriller. His five-wicket haul in the second innings was much about heart and commitment. He swung the ball away at will, brought the odd ball in and continued to be sharp.

It was a wonderful moment for Agarkar when he closed his hands on a leading edge from S. Aravind when Karnataka was only seven runs away from victory in a pulse-pounding finish. He sprinted in joy.

For Karnataka, the under-rated Vinay Kumar bowled zestfully and in the right areas to claim seven wickets in the match. He ended the season with 46 scalps, just one behind Mithun. Vinay Kumar’s role as a mentor for the younger bowlers has to be acknowledged. Avishkar Salvi, whose bowling had been blighted by injuries, operated with much craft in the Karnataka first innings to scalp five. Crucially, he was precise with his seam movement.

The final attracted an enthusiastic crowd. The venue was packed on all four days at the scenic ground surrounded by a hill, lake and trees. There were people too on the scoreboard, railings and trees, following the action. Taking domestic cricket to smaller centres does bring atmosphere to a match, lifting the players in the process.

In the end, the Mumbai cricketers chanted and danced even if the gestures of some of the younger cricketers were distinctly provocative. Mumbai benefited from a couple of umpiring errors on day four but, eventually, displayed its famous end-game skills.

THE SCORES

Mumbai 233 (O. Khanvilkar 25, A. Nayar 37, V. Samant 67, I. Abdulla 30, R. Vinay Kumar four for 61, A. Mithun three for 56) and 234 (A.Nayar 50, D. Kulkarni 87, R. Powar 28 not out, A. Mithun six for 71, Vinay Kumar three for 78) bt Karnataka 130 (K. B. Pawan 33, A. Salvi five for 31) & 331 (S. Satish 75, M. Pandey 144, A. Agarkar five for 81, D. Kulkarni three for 80).