Mumbai's grand turnaround

Mumbai, a happy bunch after winning the Ranji Trophy.-PICS: VIVEK BENDRE

Nothing could stop Mumbai as it carried over its scintillating momentum from the earlier matches into the Ranji Trophy final. Over to Nandakumar Marar.

Soon after Mumbai scored a 132-run victory in the Ranji Trophy final against Bengal at the Wankhede Stadium, the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) announced an incentive of Rs. 1 lakh to each of the 19 members of its squad. The MCA selectors had earlier made a more valuable contribution by retaining faith in the players when the team teetered on the brink of relegation from the Super League with no points after three games.

It was this bonding as a group, the seniors accepting responsibility and the youngsters grabbing the opportunity, which put Mumbai on the road to recovery. The team registered four outright wins in a row, including in the semifinals against Baroda.

From then on, it was just a matter of self-belief and momentum. Match-winners Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar became available, as per the BCCI directive to India players, and supplied ammunition and inspiration to catapult the side from a no-hoper to champion for the 37th time. Zaheer Khan's nine wickets on his Ranji debut for Mumbai, Tendulkar's matchless 105 and a merry 43, Wasim Jaffer's patient 112 and 53, apart from Ajit Agarkar's timely breakthroughs in both innings, made the difference.

A gripping contest between two competitive sides came to an abrupt end on the fourth day, Zaheer's spell (4-2-8-4) coming as a knockout blow for the visitor. The celebrations in the Mumbai dressing room and crackle of fireworks at the Wankhede Stadium, contrasted with the dark phase at the start of the 2007 campaign.

Mumbai conceded first innings lead to Bengal, was forced to follow-on for the first time and returned home scarred and empty-handed from Eden Gardens. Punjab and Hyderabad proved to be tough opposition, too, leaving the title-holder staring at relegation in the Super League.

For the two new people at the helm, Praveen Amre (debut season as Ranji coach) and captain Amol Muzumdar (given charge for the first time for a full season) the turnaround after the trauma was what mattered. "People may have wondered what was wrong with Mumbai cricket at one stage, three games and no points," recollected Amre, about those nightmarish days. "This was a special team which then won five matches outright in a row. There were areas of concern, but the selectors backed the players who responded superbly."

Mumbai's men of the hour: Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Jaffer with the bat and Zaheer Khan (below) with the ball.-

Mumbai bounced back with four wins (Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Baroda were at the receiving end) and confirmed the final berth. "This is one of the finest victories by Mumbai. I thank my team-mates, the think-tank and support staff," said Muzumdar, handing over a replica of the Ranji Trophy to the coach, in appreciation of his support during the bleak days.

None of the India stars, except Jaffer, was available for the semifinal when Baroda's new ball attack of Irfan Pathan and Rakesh Patel dismissed half the Mumbai side in the second innings (zero runs, five wickets, 3.2 overs).

Mumbai cricket had never sunk so low and there was embarrassment all round when young Wilkin Mota put his hand up and faced 74 balls for 33 runs on a Motibaug wicket assisting swing and seam movement. Vinayak Samant, as stubborn as wicket-keepers come, concentrated on surviving over by over. Nilesh Kulkarni, adept at damage-control with the bat lower down the order, lasted an incredible 145 minutes, coming in at No. 9. Mumbai proved that its fighting qualities were still intact.

Coach Amre fell back on experience. "At 0-5, I told the boys to look at the score as 91-5 (first innings lead of 91 runs) and aim for 150, which I felt was a fighting score. We needed one partnership to give others in the dressing room still left to bat some breathing space. Mota, Samant and later Kulkarni followed instructions."

Baroda, which had Mumbai on its knees at 0-5 and then 17-6, allowed the latter to prosper to 145 all out. With desperation having been replaced by determination, Mumbai seamers Abhishek Nair, Rajesh Verma and Swapnil Hazare joined Mota to bowl out Baroda for 173.

After Mumbai had steamed into the final, Muzumdar, asked what he had told the players, said: "Just playing a Ranji Trophy semifinal does not mean anything in Mumbai cricket. I told the players, either it is winning or nothing."

Apart from using a video analyst (Venkat) for detailed analysis of performance, the Mumbai team management tried different motivation tools prior to the semifinal. Each player was told to record and listen to favourite motivational songs and sports psychologist B. P. Bam had a session with the squad on focussing and teamwork.

Mumbai is credited with 41 Ranji final appearances. It last won the title in 2003-2004. Keen competition for places in the team left many talented players frustrated. The challenge before MCA, after getting Zaheer in its fold, was to halt the slide without pressing the panic button. "Having identified young talent, we needed to protect them," observed the captain, who was happy with the way the selectors backed the youngsters despite their failures.

The gains for Mumbai were Rohit Sharma, Hiken Shah, Sahil Kukreja and Bhavin Thakkar in the batting department, and all-rounder Nair and seamer Mota blossoming into big-match players.

"It is good to see Mumbai playing youngsters. The talent was always there as it is in Bengal. It was a question of giving them opportunities," observed Bengal coach Paras Mhambrey, stressing that no team can claim monopoly now in first-class cricket because coaching know-how and technology is not restricted to a few states. "Coaches are moving, players are becoming more aware of rivals, preparation is better."

Baroda was coached by Ashok Mankad, an astute coach from Mumbai and an ex-India Test batsman. His team was a mix of experience (skipper Jacob Martin, Connor Williams, Rajesh Pawar, Yusuf Pathan) and exciting youngsters (Pinal Shah, Ketan Panchal).

Bengal's resilience lifted the competitive element in the final to a new level. Sourav Ganguly lent an air of authority, inspiring the younger members to take on Mumbai's quality attack during the run chase on the fourth and decisive day. The challengers went into the match prepared for everything with the planning in the hands of Mhambrey, the ex-Mumbai Ranji captain. "You can't be too emotional about playing against Mumbai. I am a professional and enjoy what I am doing. My inputs came in the form of targets, achievable ones. I got support from everyone, seniors and juniors, including the CAB (Cricket Association of Bengal)."

Two back-to-back Ranji finals for Bengal (UP beat it in 2006) is a sign of the state's success in bringing together a combative bunch of players. Ganguly's grit is a known quantity, while Rohan Gavaskar is an experienced hand in the middle-order. The composure under pressure seen in Manoj Tiwary's aggressive strokeplay (42 and 93 versus Mumbai), fast bowler Ranadeb Bose's wicket-taking ability (nine wickets in the final) and young Subroto Sarkar and Ashok Dinda's disciplined seam bowling in both innings was admirable when pitted against international-class opponents such as Zaheer, Agarkar, Tendulkar and Wasim Jaffer.

Deep Dasgupta, a dependable opener and a man in the thick of action in both the seasons, points to the changing profile of Bengal cricketers. "Dinda came from the districts, hungry for a chance to play at this level. Sarkar got an opportunity owing to S. S. Paul's injury and he performed. Ranji players coming into the Bengal squad is not limited to city backgrounds anymore," explained the Bengal captain.

"The senior players are in the Kolkata league and doing well. The juniors could benefit from more tournaments, like the Mumbai youngsters who are competitive because of the age-groups events." For now, they have Ganguly for cricketing inspiration. "Just watching him prepare on his comeback to international cricket is motivation enough," observed Dasgupta, revealing that the former India skipper would attend nets with the team, then return in the evening for individual training. "He never missed a team session and when he was around, he interacted with the youngsters," said the Bengal skipper.

Tiwary's awesome shotmaking in Ganguly's company, during a 117-run fourth-wicket stand in the second innings, shows the impact Indian cricket's comeback man had on the final. The Bengal youngster fell six runs short of a century (13 fours, two sixes), leaving his senior to show the way. The challengers were in the hunt at 317 for four, needing another 155 runs for victory with more than a day left.

Agarkar struck with the second new ball, snaring Rohan Gavaskar to give Mumbai a whiff of victory. Zaheer sent back the next two batsmen, forcing Ganguly (90 runs) to go for broke. The visitor's dash for the tape fell short in an epic final.

"Reaching two finals in consecutive years is a sign of a very good side. Bengal have a bunch of talented players and can only get better," said Gavaskar. Bengal was stretched in the semis by Karnataka before forcing its way through, with generous help from Bose (10 wickets) and Tiwary (210 not out) both carrying their form into the final.

Venkatesh Prasad, the ex-India new ball bowler and India U-19 World Cup coach, moulded Karnataka into a compact unit with the talent available such as S. Dhananjay, B. Akhil, Bharat Chipli, C. Raghu and led by the experienced Yere Goud, a former Railways stalwart.

THE SCORES

Final: Mumbai 320 (W. Jaffer 120, S. Tendulkar 105, A. Muzumdar 31, R. Bose four for 77) and 294 (Jaffer 53, R. Sharma 57, Tendulkar 43, Muzumdar 37, A. Nair 34, Bose five for 71, S. Sarkar three for 54) beat Bengal 143 (M. Tiwary 42, Sarkar 25, Zaheer Khan five for 40) and 339 (D. Dasgupta 57, Tiwary 94, S. Ganguly 90, R. Gavaskar 46, Zaheer four for 119) by 132 runs.

MUMBAI'S PROGRESS

Super League: Mumbai drew with Bengal (zero points), drew with Punjab (zero), lost to Hyderabad by nine wkts (zero), bt Gujarat by innings and 163 runs (five), bt Rajasthan by innings and 31 runs (five), bt Maharashtra by innings and 154 runs (five). Semifinal: bt Baroda by 63 runs. Final: bt Bengal by 132 runs.