Beaten at their own game
The Irani Trophy 2007-08 scorecard will simply read: 'Rest of India won by nine wickets' and not that the match was actually won and lost in one hour on the third afternoon.
When ROI lost Manoj Tiwary for 130 just before lunch on day three, they were still 35 behind Mumbai's 453, with two wickets in hand. The batsmen who came together at the fall of Tiwary's wicket - Munaf Patel and Ranadeb Bose - are delightful tailenders in the fullest sense of the word. Bose's usual determination with the bat doesn't hide that No. 9 is probably one position too high for him. Munaf doesn't usually bother to pretend; he tries to whack anything within his swing and opens the face to anything too far.
Mumbai, surprisingly, tried to contain runs instead of going for their wickets by employing inside-out fields usually reserved for proper batsmen in such conditions. Munaf, to his credit, played sensibly, curbing the urge to hit boundaries where four fielders waited. The edges he could not help, neither could Bose. They got closer with singles and also got lucky twice in one Abhishek Nayar over. Bose was beaten by the delivery and the ball touched the off bail, but did not dislodge it. Nayar, in fact, thought it was a nick off the bat and appealed for it. Two balls and a single later, he trapped Munaf in front, but was turned down by the umpire.
"That's how they play I guess," the ROI captain Mohammad Kaif said after the match. "That's their strong point. They like to play the waiting game. That's probably why they have been consistently successful."
In hindsight it probably wasn't defensive cricket at all. With the wicket not doing much, Mumbai wanted to test their mental toughness and make them earn every run. It was a game of hanging in there - and ROI beat Mumbai at their own game.
When ROI finally gained the lead, there were eight sessions and a half left in the match. But the way Mumbai had let it drift probably left them demoralised and too spent for another scrap. It didn't help that Munaf came out charged up to bowl the second innings. Mumbai had got off to a good start once again when he ran Sahil Kukreja out with a direct hit. Munaf followed it up by running through Mumbai's middle order by getting the ball to consistently swing in, something no other bowler managed on this wicket. Once they lost wickets in quick succession, it was too tall an order for Mumbai.
The importance of the first-innings lead in these games can hardly be overstated. In the Ranji final they won to qualify for this match, Mumbai had attained a 177-run first-innings lead on the second day. When in a casual chat Milind Rege, their selector, was suggested if they could go for the kill and finish the game by the fourth morning, Rege joked there was no way Mumbai were declaring. If they could, they would go on and bat till stumps on day five.
But that's the way they play their cricket: make the opposition earn every win. Had Mumbai got even a one-run lead here, it would have meant extra pressure on ROI to make things happen. Their bowlers who had been treated severely in the first innings, would have a bigger block to overcome. And Mumbai would probably not have thrown the match open with a declaration.
The wicket here did not have much to do with Mumbai's dramatic collapse in the second innings: it was partly the swing Munaf got and partly poor shot selection from Mumbai's batsmen that got them bowled out for 106. Television footage showed the wicket looking greener on the third morning than on the second morning. The bowlers, though, weren't queuing up to have a go at it because the green colour may as well have been paint. The ball did nothing off it; there was no inconsistent bounce, no turn, and under a cloudless sky, there was also no swing.
When Mumbai look back at the match, that one hour when the ROI tailenders hung in will probably hurt them more than the collapse that followed. Especially after their young batsmen had brought to knees an attack that was strong on paper and intimidating in stature. Losing at one's own game is always the hardest to digest.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine