Mumbai cruise on Tendulkar, Rahane tons
Mumbai 344 for 4 (Tendulkar 137, Rahane 104*) v Railways
The start of the Ranji Trophy has rarely been under such scrutiny. The return of India's star players to their domestic sides has been the biggest draw for fans, but not too far behind are those players possibly competing for a place in the Test squad during a long home season. At the Wankhede Stadium, Sachin Tendulkar, recovering from a severe stomach bug, batted with comfort, assuredness and ultimately supreme confidence to give a disappointingly small crowd of a few hundred spectators the performance they'd come to watch.
"I'm happy with this knock," Tendulkar told Indian Express. "It was tough in this heat as I had food poisoning and an upset stomach."
At the other end, Ajinkya Rahane quietly continued accumulating runs, reaching another landmark in what has already been a hectic two months for him and boosting his own chances for a place in the Test squad. Together, they put Mumbai in a dominating position against Railways, who had chosen to field, hoping their attack comprising four seam options would derive some help from the covering of grass on the track.
The wicket that brought Tendulkar and Rahane together at 143 for 3 was of another Test hopeful, who was understandably livid after being run out. Rohit Sharma batted 40 minutes in the nets yesterday, also with a wicketkeeper standing up against the spinners. He came in at No.4 - Tendulkar's position - and his preparation appeared to be paying off when he charged out twice to left-arm spinner Murali Kartik to hit him for fours. Unfortunately for Rohit, he was dismissed in a manner he would have least anticipated.
Tendulkar, too, had prepared rigorously for this outing. He began cautiously after being greeted with huge cheers from a sparse crowd, and bowling to him in that initial phase was Hardik Rathod, whose action is similar to Zaheer Khan's. New Zealand's Trent Boult had given Tendulkar a tough time with his left-arm pace in a series in which Tendulkar was bowled thrice, but Rathod lacked the swing or movement to cause similar troubles. Tendulkar played straight, appeared to pick the length well and waited for an opening. When on 12, he had a slice of luck against a ball from Rathod that kept low, inside-edging it past fine leg, but that was a rare moment of unease.
It wasn't until his 31st delivery that he struck a boundary, dispatching a wide delivery from seamer Anureet Singh through point. While initially circumspect against pace, he gained his fluency against spin. Ashish Yadav flighted the ball generously and Tendulkar struck him for back-to-back boundaries past mid-on, Shivakant Yadav was smashed over deep midwicket for six. After tea, Tendulkar would also turn his attention to pace while the ruthlessness against spin continued.
Tendulkar targeted Yadav, cutting and pulling him for fours before clearing long-on and deep extra cover to speed past Rahane. When the pair had put on a century stand, in the 69th over, Tendulkar had scored 61 of those runs and he would be the first among the pair to reach a century - his first in first-class cricket since January 2011. The assault against Yadav had taken him into the nineties and the progress to the landmark - brought up with a nudge behind square - was interrupted briefly by a fan who ran in to shake his hand when on 99.
Rahane faced more anxious moments, was more workmanlike in his approach and grew more determined to bat long. Chasing a fullish delivery from Rathod when on 7, Rahane was dropped by Murali Kartik at second slip and then had a couple of leading edges land safe as he walked across and closed the face. "Catches keep getting dropped, it's a part and parcel," Rahane said. "After that, I showed more determination and I tried to play as much as possible in the 'V'."
Rahane was comfortable against deliveries that were held back, and scored freely off the back foot, punching through cover, whipping through square leg and picking off singles with ease when Railways employed a deep point.
Once in the groove, Rahane drove well down the ground, past the bowler, mid-off and extra cover, prompting Sanjay Bangar, the Railways captain, to place a silly mid-off and a short extra cover at one stage. His steady approach was overshadowed by Tendulkar's dominance, but Rahane, too, didn't waste too many chances. Kartik almost had him caught at slip with a turning ball, but Rahane cut him through point and then cracked the first delivery with the second new-ball through cover for four - he reached his century the same over.
Tendulkar's aggression after tea - which included three fours in an over against seamer Krishnakant Upadhyaya - ended when he tried to upper cut Anureet but was caught at second slip. This, after a 200-run stand off 249 balls, a barrage of boundaries, and an imposing first-day score to complete a fulfilling day for Mumbai, its two centurions and the few who turned up.
Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo