Bahutule returns to bolster 'balanced' Mumbai
Dar gaaye tere se, Pankaj. Khod ke rakh diya (They got scared of you, it's all grazed). Gagan Khoda pointed out to his Rajasthan team-mate Pankaj Singh about the grass being shaved off the pitch, now a brown and barren patch. The previous day, Pankaj, the Rajasthan spearhead, had announced Wasim Jaffer and Rohit Sharma as his prime targets, thereby setting the tone the for season-opener that starts tomorrow at the Brabourne Stadium.
Though Rajasthan have lost to Mumbai in the last two years, both outright defeats, the visitors are not willing to confer the 'favourites' tag on their opponents. A team mostly comprising youngsters led by a new captain, Venugopal Rao, Rajasthan are well behind Mumbai in terms of experience and star value. Only Rao and Gagan Khoda have played for India whereas Mumbai have five players in the squad who have a national cap in at least one form of the game. Still, Rajasthan believe they can put up a fight.
Rao, who joined the team this season after quitting Maharashtra, felt the onus was on the batsmen to rise to the occasion and support the bowlers. Rao said his team was riding on the confidence of a fighting performance against Australia in the tour game a month ago. In the two-day game, the Australians were restricted to a small total of 218 with left-arm spinner Gajendra Singh picking up a five-for.
Though the main batsmen - Khoda, Robin Bist and Rao - got starts, Rajasthan were bundled out for a paltry 122. Rajasthan would say it was just the first game of the new season, the inexperience of many players remains a concern. Mumbai, in contrast, are spoilt for choice.
As a mark of confidence, they have already announced their 12, leaving out Ankit Chavan, Hiken Shah and Rohan Raje. More importantly, the return of Sairaj Bahutule has added the much-required balance to the lower middle-order which struggled in his absence after he moved to Maharashtra three years ago.
Bahutule said it was "fantastic" to be back to represent his home state and is hungry to prove his worth once again. According to him, a huge advantage Mumbai have this season is the "balance" in the set-up. "Balance remains the strong point with Rohit [Sharma], Sahil [Kukreja] and Abhishek [Nair] who have developed in the last few years into key players," Bahutule after the training on Sunday.
Praveen Amre, the Mumbai coach, felt Bahutule's return is definitely a boost for Mumbai who failed to defend the title last year when they found it hard to notch victories convincingly. "Sai (Bahutule) comes as a package who can control situations with both the bat and ball," Amre said. Mumbai fans will have strong memories of the numerous fightbacks marshalled by the pair of Bahutule and Ramesh Powar after the collapse of the top order during the 2002-03 season. It was only because of their spirited all-round display that Paras Mhambrey went on to lift the Ranji crown that season.
The presence of Wasim Jaffer at the top is another big positive for the batting line-up which will miss the services of Rohit Sharma in the middle order as he's expected to join the Indian team for the ODI series starting on November 14 against England. Jaffer has always had a huge appetite for runs and that will only help the likes of youngsters like Kukreja and Nayar, who are moving ahead on the learning curve. Kukreja was the second-highest run-getter behind Amol Muzumdar, whom Jaffer replaced as captain this season.
Mumbai return to the Brabourne Stadium after more than a decade and Ajit Agarkar has good memories of the pitch on which he bagged six wickets in the formidable 311-victory over Maharashtra during the league phase. "The pitch is similar in nature. It was seaming then," Agarkar said. Agarkar, who had a hernia operation, will share the new ball with Dhaval Kulkarni, who came into prominence during the IPL for the Mumbai Indians.
But with the wicket likely to aid spin from the second day, the slow bowlers could play a more prominent role in forcing a result. When asked whether Vivek Yadav, the leg spinner, will be handed a debut, Rao gave a positive wink.
Mumbai: Wasim Jaffer (capt), Ajinkya Rahane, Sahil Kukreja, Rohit Sharma, Amol Muzumdar, Abhishek Nair, Ajit Agarkar, Vinayak Samant (wk), Sairaj Bahutule, Ramesh Powar, Dhaval Kulkarni
Rajasthan: Venugopal Rao (capt), Shubhanshu Vijay, Vineet Saxena, Robin Bist, Nikhil Doru, Gagan Khoda, Shailender Gehlot, Vikrant Yadav (wk), Gajendra Singh, Pankaj Singh, Sumit Mathur, Vivek Yadav.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo