Kukreja and Nayar lead Mumbai
Contrasting centuries from Sahil Kukreja and Abhishek Nayar set up Mumbai's comfortable position at the end of the first day of the Irani Trophy clash in Rajkot. Kukreja's patient century, his third first-class ton and second in succession, was in direct contrast to Nayar's counterattacking blitz and their 172-run stand in 31.2 overs was the highlight of a batsman-dominated day.
Coming on the back of his 110 in the Mohammad Nissar Trophy against Karachi Urban, Kukreja's hundred was filled with compact defense and correct strokeplay. Nayar, on the other hand, walking in at 164 for 4, improvised, and blazed his way to his second first-class century, the previous one coming in the same match against Karachi Urban.
Kukreja was solid from the start after Mumbai won the toss and elected to bat. Together with the more flamboyant Ajinkya Rahane, he added 91 for the first wicket against the largely unimpressive medium-pace trio of Munaf Patel, Ranadeb Bose and Ishant Sharma. After a stroke-filled innings that spanned close to two hours, Rahane was unfortunate to be adjudged leg before to a Bose delivery that was sliding down the leg side. He scored a fine 52 to follow up on his debut century in Mohammad Nisar Trophy.
Mumbai proceeded to lose three wickets at regular intervals, but Kukreja was rarely flustered. A couple of streaky boundaries before lunch were the only blemishes in a determined knock. He waited for the loose balls, which were plenty on offer, and punished them accordingly without having to go through air even once. Without being spectacular, he kept the runs ticking and never letting Mumbai's rollicking run-rate drop.
With Amol Muzumdar, Wasim Jaffer and Prashant Naik all back in the hut, Mumbai were in a tricky state on what looked a good batting track. But Nayar strode out and took the bowling apart as if he had been batting in an adjoining ground. He looked like he had already played himself in, trusted the pace and bounce of the pitch and his ability to find in the gaps. He started off by busting left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha's rhythm just as he began to hit the same areas consistently. The first over Ojha bowled to Nayar went for three fours and his length was never the same again.
ROI captain Mohammad Kaif's tactics were surprising. He waited for 35 overs of innocuous pace bowling before introducing Ojha. The other spinner, Amit Mishra, had to wait another 18 overs to get to bowl his legspinners. But a warm welcome was not forthcoming, as Nayar hit his first ball over mid-off and then cut the next for another four.
Kukreja and Nayar made a perfect pair - one batting solidly and the other plundering a run-a-ball. This was further illustrated in the manner they reached their hundreds: Kukreja just helping one to short fine leg for a single and Nayar reverse-sweeping a four when on 97 having just surviving getting bowled while attempting the same shot.
"I think he [Kukreja] was doing well playing within his limitations and I was playing the shots I play well," Nayar said. "I was lucky they kept letting me play those shots. We were playing our natural games well. He kept taking singles and I kept hitting the boundaries. The team benefited from our contrasting games."
The Kukreja-Nayar union thwarted the ROI bowlers but the medium-pacers never really found their rhythm all day, something that they could ill afford at their pace. Munaf Patel bowled around the mid-130 kph range, Sharma hovered in the early 130s and Bose settled at the mid-120s. In their first spells, Munaf and Bose bowled on both sides of the pitch giving away easy runs. Munaf also had a problem with overstepping, sending down nine no-balls in his 15.5 overs. Mishra chipped in with his share - three in eight overs, a high number for a spinner.
Bose was more accurate in his second spell, in which he was rewarded with two wickets, but never looked threatening enough. Ojha looked promising before Nayar launched into him. Mishra was never allowed to settle.
Mumbai threatened to squander the position of strength when they slid from 336 for 4 to 359 for 8. It began with an injudicious single as Nayar called Kukreja for a cheeky run to cover, but Subramaniam Badrinath hit the stumps down. Soon Nayar top-edged a sweep off Ojha and there wasn't much of fight from the lower order as four wickets went down for 23 runs. Thankfully for Mumbai Ramesh Powar, who joined the squad just this morning, and Iqbal Abdulla got a 26-run partnership going to take them closer to a competitive 400.
Powar, his flashy locks shorn in favour of a more sober look after being dropped from the national side, lived dangerously, trying every shot without much success, and somehow stumbled to 28 from 35 balls. Abdulla displayed the cheek of a spinner to squeeze out two fours through the slip cordon. With Mumbai closing in on 400, though, their team-mates wouldn't have really have minded the quality of the strokeplay.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine