Mumbai were crowned the Domestic Kings for the 38th time. It's now up to the selectors to disprove whether some good performances in the domestic season are more equal than others.
Nudging the ball to the covers, the young man took off a bit slowly but he felt confident. For it was an uneven contest. The batsman, a 22 years young, counted amongst the fastest runners in his national team challenging the fielder, a veteran 36 years old journeyman who was never very quick even in his hey days. It was an astonishing pick up and the throw found the stumps at the nonstriker's end uprooted. It was a tough decision for the third umpire but Raina had to go. For the fielder Sairaj Bahutule, it was possibly his only measurable contribution to the game.
Bahutule's selection in the Mumbai team for the 2008-09 Ranji trophy final was somewhat curious. Amol Muzumdar, the man dropped to make way for him, had led Mumbai to its 37th Ranji title a couple of years back and was the highest scorer for the team in the previous year. Muzumdar also needed 31 runs to become the highest scorer in Ranji Trophy. However he had to his name, only 1 century in 8 matches played in the season. Bahutule himself had a poor run in the season but the decision to play an additional bowler tilted the balance in Bahutule's favour. Muzumdar, the man who had been a tireless servant of Mumbai cricket was dropped for the finals for getting the team balance right. That move summed up the mental makeup of the ever formidable Mumbai Ranji team.
The final promised to be an exciting affair. The ever growing commentaries on the democratisation of Indian cricket, the rise and rise of non traditional cricket centres and the waning influence of the erstwhile strong teams were going to be tested yet again. That the Mumbai/Delhi/Karnataka grip on the domestic cricket circuit was loose, there was no doubt about, but would UP strike another blow for this argument remained to be seen.
The availability of Tendulkar and Zaheer was a major boost to Mumbai's title hopes in addition to the presence of Jaffer, Rahane, Powar, Kulkarni and Agarkar. Kaif, Raina, RP Singh, Piyush Chawla and Praveen Kumar provided UP with the nucleus of a good balanced side. But Mumbai were the clear favourites and an extra ordinary team effort from UP would be needed to win them their 2nd Ranji title.†
After winning the toss, Kaif asked Mumbai to bat first. Whether this decision was based on the fear of inexperience of his own top order against the likes of Zaheer, Agarkar and Kulkarni or in the hope of making use of a new pitch to make early inroads in the Mumbai batting line up, is open to discussion. It seemed that Bhuvnesh Kumar fully and thoroughly believed in the latter. In an outstanding spell of swing bowling he had Mumbai tottering at 4-55 with Tendulkar being his prized scalp.
Rohit Sharma, who has been plagued by a substantial variance between his potential and actual performance, was joined at the crease by Abhishek Nayar, the quintessential Mumbai fighter. The duo put their heads down and started the grind. Helped generously by the UP fielders, they managed to defend the onslaught. It wasn't a pretty sight with some streaky shots and some close calls but it was the oft abused term 'spirit of Mumbai' that withstood whatever was thrown at it. Nayar fell agonisingly short of his century by a run, the gallant Bhuvnesh Kumar being the wrecker once again. But by then he had already added 207 runs with Rohit Sharma and saved Mumbai the blushes. Bahutule lasted just 1 ball and UP seemed to have regained the momentum again. The first day saw Mumbai close at 297-6 with honours even.
But there was a lot more to be done. Rohit Sharma who was batting on 113 had to work with the lower order to push the total towards 400. It was the batting heroics of Zaheer and Kulkarni who added 44 for the last wicket that took Mumbai to 402. UP fielding a team with an average age of 21 was woeful in the field and for all those keen on dropping 'old' players it was an eye opener. Enthusiasm does not a good fielder make.
With Raina getting out in the manner mentioned at the start of this article, UP were struggling at 6 for 2. At the crease were Shivkant Shukla, the scorer of that epic 821 minute tap (calling it a knock would be a travesty of justice) and Kaif. Now watching Kaif and Shukla together is an idea whose time has come for all those insomniacs. It was excruciating and though defence might have been the order of the day, the crawl wasn't. Just when the duo seemed to have played out the day, Zaheer's reverse swing and an umpiring error broke the partnership with the UP captain dismissed for 33. UP ending the day at 91-3.
Zaheer then came back the next day to break the back of UP batting starting with a fortuitous LBW decision against Shukla on 99. It was a knock of immense concentration and patience and deserved a century. From there it was a virtual slide for UP with the last 6 wickets lost for a mere 31 runs. The wide chasm between a good domestic bowler and a great international bowler was being painfully learnt by UP.
The only hope for UP after conceding a first innings lead of 157 was to get quick wickets and that too vanished quickly with Jaffar and Samant helping themselves to half centuries by the close of day and Mumbai were ahead by 287 runs. UP seemed well and truly buried. The only point of interest that remained to be seen was the timing of the Mumbai declaration.
Starting day 4, Mumbai seemed to be in no hurry. Some spirited bowling by the UP seamers kindled some hope in the team camp with Mumbai losing wickets steadily. Samant scored a patient maiden century but the Mumbai innings had started looking a bit wobbly with Tendulkar failing yet again for 4. Rohit Sharma on the other side was displaying his talent freely and scored a fluent stroke filled century. The previous man to score a century in both innings of a Ranji Trophy final was Tendulkar and the passing of Mumbaiís batsmanship baton to the next generation may have been witnessed at Uppal. Mumbai kept on batting even after Sharma fell and the lead well beyond chaseable levels of 500.
For a cricket lover it was a painful experience watching Bahutule and Kulkarni prod around for almost 17 overs and the aptly coined term 'Khadoos', used to describe a Mumbai cricketer, kept on leaping to one's mind.† It was ugly but safety, more safety and ultra safety are words on top of a Mumbaikar's mind of late and it showed in the way they played.
The final day was of mere theoretical value and Mumbai did indeed secure an outright victory by 243 runs. The only bright spots for UP being the captain and Bhuvnesh Kumar, this time with a stroke filled 80.
Mumbai were crowned the Domestic Kings for the 38th time. It's now up to the selectors to disprove whether some good performances in the domestic season are more equal than others. A Murali Vijay is thought of at No 3 in the Indian batting line up but a Pujara or a Rahane isn't. Suresh Raina is still a regular fixture in the ODI team but a Kaif isn't. Bhuvnesh Kumar may provide good competition to Irfaan for the all rounder's slot. It will be an interesting team selection for the upcoming Sri Lanka tour and one will get to see if many more Amol Muzumdars will be produced by India in general and Mumbai in particular.