It's Mumbai again

THIRTY-SIX titles — 15 of them on the trot — from 40 finals in the 70-year history of the Ranji Trophy.

SANJAY RAJAN

THIRTY-SIX titles — 15 of them on the trot — from 40 finals in the 70-year history of the Ranji Trophy. Rarely has such domination been wielded in team sport at the domestic level. So much so that every time Mumbai wins the National championship, you imagine the trophy is going home. To where it truly belongs.

The victorious Mumbai team. — Pic. N. BALAJI-

While there has been a noticeable drop in its success rate in recent years — partly because a certain diminutive genius of a batsman is mostly away on national duty — Mumbai has remained a dominant force. Its reserve strength and disciplined approach make it a team to contend with. Tendulkar or no Tendulkar.

It was discipline, again, which enabled the West Zone powerhouse bag the coveted crown, beating Tamil Nadu for the second successive season in the final at the Chidambaram Stadium in the last week of March.

Among the first things drilled into the psyche of a newcomer to the side is the value of the Mumbai cap.

In fact, it is about the city's rich history that coach Chandrakant Pandit talks about during team meetings, especially when the side has had a bad day.

Vinayak Mane and Wasim Jaffer put on 243 runs for the opening wicket in Mumbai's first innings. - Pic. N. Balaji.-

Pandit emphasises on the exploits of past greats who played with great passion and pride. Then he asks the boys what their contribution towards that image is.

The match against Delhi in the league phase actually kick-started the season. "I thought we'd lose the game. Needing 185 for victory on a bad wicket at the Jamia Millia ground in Delhi wasn't easy. At the team meeting, I spoke to the boys about Mumbai's `never-say-die' spirit and the intensity associated with Delhi-Mumbai clashes of the old. The following day, Wasim Jaffer and Vinayak Mane batted in a dream-like manner," said Pandit, a former Indian stumper.

Former players, says Pandit, are "worried about the recent downslide of Mumbai cricket".

"They (former cricketers) contribute a lot. Sunil Gavaskar, Sanjay Manjrekar and a whole lot of them talk to the boys, provide them with insights. In fact, Sunil met the team before the semi-finals and told them that he wanted to see Mumbai regain its reputation as a winning unit.

"The Selection Committee is supportive, and the current international cricketers follow the side's fortunes even if they are thousands of miles away. Even during the final against Tamil Nadu, Sachin (Tendulkar), Ajit (Agarkar) and Ramesh (Powar), who were in Pakistan, were in touch with the boys, inspiring them. The best part about them is that they never miss an opportunity to turn out for the State."

He describes his role over the last two years: "I'm just passing down what I learn't as a member of the Mumbai team. The boys need to understand that supremacy is winning over a length of time — say six to seven seasons on the trot — like the Mumbai of the old. Back-to-back triumphs feel nice. But then, this, to me, is just the start."

Vinayak Mane and Wasim Jaffer put on 243 runs for the opening wicket in Mumbai's first innings. - Pic. N. Balaji.-

Pandit's strength is the rapport he has established with the boys, having played along with them either at the first-class level or club level.

"Things have happened since I took over. We have a system in place. The boys know that the team's interest is primary. There is talent. I have enforced discipline. I've been hard on them, but they have accepted it. It's a unit now, the togetherness is our strength. Owing to this everything has fallen into place."

Pandit said that a better sense of understanding was developed during his second term. "I gave them a free hand, but they made sure they didn't cross the limit."

So how does he compare the two seasons? "The batting was much better this time. We struggled initially, but improved, especially in the last three games. We had no problems in bowling."

Jaffer, Vinod Kambli and Amol Muzumdar scored over 600 runs each, Mane 579 and Bhavin Thakkar 340. Leg-spinner Sairaj Bahutule topped the bowling honours with 39 wickets, followed by Nilesh Kulkarni with 27.

Mumbai's skipper Sairaj Bahutule completes a return catch of Tamil Nadu captain S. Suresh. Bahutule topped the bowling honours for his team in the Ranji season. — Pic. N. BALAJI-

Pandit said Kambli's return this season, after representing South African side Boland for one year, was a bonus.

"Mumbai is used to playing without its stars. Vinod's return boosted the young side's confidence. This is a Vinod with a refreshing change in his attitude. With the talented left-hander at No. 5, most opposition sides knew that things won't be easy with him around and so focussed on him, which makes it easier on the top-order."

Muzumdar's return to form was also timely. The middle-order bat was low on confidence after a miserable run last season. He said "his stint in the Minor League in England helped him find himself."

Medium pacer Munaf Patel, who opted to play for Mumbai, had a fairly impressive first season, and caught the eye with his lively pace and bounce.

Talking about the final, Pandit said, "With the toss going Tamil Nadu's way, we expected to chase a score of 400-plus in the first innings; 294 was a bonus."

Niklesh Kulkarni took six wickets for 83 in Tamil Nadu's first essay. -- Pic N. Balaji.-

The coach was all praise for Bahutule's focus and keenness. The respect is mutual. The skipper said: "There were times when things didn't go our way, the game against Railways for example, and Pandit helped me push the guys. He made the lads realise they were professionals and that professionals have to perform — play out of their skin. The nicest thing about the team is the unity. Each enjoys the other's performance. Ashok Mankad (the earlier coach) was good, but Pandit brought intensity, dedication and discipline."

It was Bahutule's first season as skipper. "It feels good to join the illustrious list of successful skippers. It was a team effort through and through. Captaincy is an added responsibility, cause you've got to think of 14 others. This is not to forget Mumbai's awesome history. You concentrate on the present, focus on winning and improve the record. But we owe it to our predecessors."

Kambli said the triumph was satisfying. "Being a senior member of the side, it felt truly nice to guide the young boys to the title. We played like champions, we are the champions."

It was second time unlucky for Tamil Nadu. As skipper of both seasons S. Suresh put it, "Losing at home hurts more. The batting failure in the first innings obviously cost us the match. There weren't enough partnerships. We learn't a lot from this contest, especially the way Mumbai handled it. I'm certain we won't repeat this mistake. We missed Balaji (away in Pakistan) sorely."

Tamil Nadu didn't make the most of batting first on a flatbed. Left-arm spinner Nilesh Kulkarni took six wickets, including that of S. Sriram — whose reverse-sweep fell into Jaffer's hands at lone-slip, when the side was looking upto him for guidance, is certain to give him many a sleepless night.

S. Badrinath waves his bat after scoring an unbeaten century in the second innings. He was also the highest run-getter for Tamil Nadu in the season. — Pic. N. BALAJI-

And, had it not been for 'keeper-bat K. Dinesh Kaarthick's pugnacious century — carrying the side from 123 for five to its eventual tally — it would have been worse. The script might have seemed familiar for Kaarthick, who, a few days earlier, helped the side recover from a similar kind of situation against Railways in the semi-final with a century. Except, things didn't turn out the same way this time.

Jaffer and Mane provided the side with a 243-run opening-wicket stand. It was the former's third ton of the season and the latter's third on the trot, including his Duleep Trophy hundred. Muzumdar became the third centurion of the innings while Bahutule missed one by eight runs. Mumbai's run feast was helped largely by the lack of resources in the host's bowling department.

Badrinath's century in the second innings — his fourth first-class hundred of the season — helped Tamil Nadu draw the match. But that was only of academic interest. For, Tamil Nadu lost the initiative on day one, when its batsmen threw it all away.

Medium pacer L. Balaji, who missed a good part of the season — including the semi-final and the final — owing to international commitments, had covered up for the deficiency in the bowling department over the last two seasons.

Dinesh Kaarthick made a gritty hundred in Tamil Nadu's first innings. — Pic. N. BALAJI-

Badrinath was the highest run-getter for the side with 711. S. Sharath and Sriram scored over 500 each and Kaarthick 438. Left-arm spinner R. Ramkumar was the leading wicket-taker with 30 scalps.

The Mumbai Cricket Association announced a Rs. four-lakh bonus for the team. The BCCI secretary, S.K. Nair, gave away the trophies.

In the semi-finals, Tamil Nadu defeated Railways on first innings lead while Mumbai defeated Hyderabad by an innings and 152 runs in three days.

Final: Tamil Nadu 294 (S. Suresh 38, S. Sriram 51, H.K. Badani 27, S. Sharath 29, K.D. Kaarthick 109 not out, N. Kulkarni six for 83, S. Bahutule three for 74) & 353 for four (Suresh 36, S. Vidyut 70, S. Ramesh 35, S. Badrinath 110 not out, Badani 77 not out) drew with Mumbai 613 (V. Mane 106, W. Jaffer 133, A. Muzumdar 146, V. Kambli 55, Bahutule 92, Vidyut three for 146), in Chennai from March 26 to 30.

Semi-finals: Hyderabad 166 (A.T. Rayudu 95, Munaf Patel three for 40, Bahutule four for 42) & 158 (A. Shetty 27, Rayudu 53, A. Singh 42, Kulkarni three for 53, Bahutule six for 53) lost to Mumbai 476 (Mane 154, Jaffer 37, Kambli 100, Muzumdar 51, M. Joglekar 33, V. Raju six for 139, J.S. Yadav four for 162), in Mumbai from March 14 to 16.

Tamil Nadu 481 (Suresh 44, Sriram 172, Sharath 26, K.S. Vasudeva Das 25, Kaarthick 122, R. Ramkumar 28 not out) & 306 (Suresh 25, Ramesh 97, Sriram 38, Badrinath 26, Kaarthick 48, M. Yadav four for 117, K. Parida four for 65) drew with Railways 342 (S.N. Kanolkar 31, S. Bangar 47, J.P. Yadav 116, Raja Ali 61, Vidyut three for 55) & 117 for five (Ali 36, S. Verma 39 not out, Ganapathy three for 20), in Chennai from March 14 to 18.