Inspired Mumbai seek to shake off Irani Cup rust
If the nature of the competition in the Irani Cup over the last two editions were to be assessed, it wouldn't reflect too well on the Rest of India sides. Karnataka swamped them by an innings and 222 runs in 2013-14 and followed it up with a 246-run thrashing last season.
It is hard to argue against the logic of Ranji Trophy champions being successful; they are, after all, well-drilled units playing together for a considerable length of time and familiar with the winning habit. The Rest of India team, in contrast, is only an assembly of the best players that season, who have very little time to gel as a unit.
However, a larger sample size over a longer period does not conform to such 'logic'.
Consider this: Karnataka's victories have been the only instances of Ranji Trophy champions winning the Irani Cup in the last ten seasons. Mumbai have 15 Irani Cup titles, including one that was shared in 1965-66, but haven't won in their last seven attempts. The last time they won the Irani Cup was in 1997-98. It is this anomaly that Mumbai, clearly big on history and legacy, is seeking to rectify.
"I think our great history inspires us. It's not easy for any team to win 41 championships," Aditya Tare, the Mumbai captain, told ESPNcricinfo on the eve of the match. "If you see the 50s, 60s and 70s, that's the time Mumbai dominated for three-four decades. Obviously the biggest attribute of Mumbai cricket is that hunger to win every season. The teams in the past have done that and we have to learn from that and take that legacy forward.
"It will be great if we win because it's been a long time since Mumbai have won the Irani Trophy, so it's a big motivation to do something special, do a double in the first-class tournaments. It's going to be a big challenge for us and I think the boys are pumped up. It is a great opportunity for us to showcase our talent against a tough opposition."
Tare said his team drew inspiration as much from Mumbai's proud past as its own achievements in recent times. This synergy, he felt, gave Mumbai an advantage over other sides. "The style of cricket we play, the grit and determination, we have been groomed with that since childhood," he said. "Even in the [under-]16s and under-19s we have coaches who talk about what teams in the past have achieved.
"Having said that, it's a young team and it's important we keep motivating ourselves at every level we reach and keep that hunger going strong. In Mumbai everyone is on the same page, everyone wants to win games and everyone wants to keep that tradition going. That's the difference. It makes us stand out from the other teams.
"I think we have got the momentum and it's not easy for a team [Rest of India] to quickly gel in a day or a two. That's one thing that adds to our advantage, but by no means we can take the opposition lightly because there are players who have done well throughout the season. So we are wary about it and we are ready for the challenge."
Naman Ojha, the Rest of India captain, on the other hand, played down the relative disadvantage of not having enough time together as a team. "Playing for Rest of India is a great honour," he told ESPNcricinfo. "They all want to play one level higher, and it would be good for them if they perform here, so automatically focus comes."
Ojha said he was impressed by Vidarbha batsman Faiz Fazal, Haryana offspinner Jayant Yadav and Assam seamer Krishna Das, and agreed it was a situation where individuals taking greater ownership for their performances would give the team a better shot at success. "I think that's the only thing [that changes from a Ranji Trophy environment]," he said. "I think we don't need to tell them [what their roles are]; they know why they are here. They need to do the same things that they are doing with their respective sides.
"Mumbai play in a very disciplined manner; that's the only thing where they are a little ahead of other teams. I think that [the will to counter Mumbai's discipline] should come from within; if they want to play one level higher they will have to perform here."
There have been some strange omissions from the Rest of India side, like those of KB Arun Karthik, who scored 802 runs for Assam this season, Madhya Pradesh's Jalaj Saxena (588 runs and 49 wickets) and Kerala's Rohan Prem (705 runs).
Mumbai, on the other hand, have been strengthened by the addition of young batsman Jay Bista, who scored a double century a few days ago to help Mumbai win the Colonel CK Nayudu under-23 trophy.
Both Tare and Ojha agreed that performances in high-profile domestic matches like the Irani Cup carried greater weight. "It's a game that a lot of people watch and pay a lot of attention [to]," Tare said. "If you take wickets or score runs in a Ranji Trophy final or an Irani Trophy game, there is a lot of impact. That's one incentive I would say that players from both sides will have in this match."
(With stats inputs from Bharath Seervi)
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo