Nayar, Agarkar put Mumbai on top
Railways 86 for 2 (Bangar 36*, Agarkar 2-20) trail Mumbai 570 (Tendulkar 137, Rahane 129, Nayar 107*) by 484 runs
Mumbai tightened their hold against Railways at Wankhede Stadium as they amassed a formidable first-innings total and then made early inroads with the ball. Abhishek Nayar became the third centurion of Mumbai's innings, following Sachin Tendulkar and Ajinkya Rahane who had hit tons on the opening day, and received much assistance from the lower order in stretching the team score and approaching his own landmark. Mumbai bat deep and scored quickly, and their captain Ajit Agarkar bowled sharply to dismiss the Railways openers.
Nayar had gone without a century for nine first-class innings before this, and reached his ninth century in the format with a flat six off left-arm spinner Murali Kartik, who, apart from bowling five no-balls, was targeted by Nayar as well as Mumbai's lower order on an expensive day in which he conceded 96 runs off 19 overs.
On a pitch that Nayar said was slower and more conducive to spin than usual, he was attacking to start with but then ceded floor to his lower-order partners, Agarkar and Ramesh Powar, who took the bowlers head-on and left Nayar - who was Mumbai's second-highest run-getter last Ranji season - to pick off singles as the field spread out.
Injuries have affected Nayar's career - a fractured thumb while fielding interrupted a productive season in 2011-12. He had undergone wrist surgery following IPL 2010. "I've never had injuries like a pull or something like that, I've always had more serious injuries," Nayar said. "For me, fitness has never been about how strong I am or how fit I am. When I had my wrist surgery, it was a bony injury. It's not in my control. Whatever I can control I try and control that."
A century in the Police Shield tournament before joining the Mumbai squad this season, Nayar said, helped him prepare for this opener. "It helped me get into the groove because we haven't had a lot of cricket in the past because of the weather."
Nayar's approach in the morning session was attacking, at a time when the Railways bowlers were searching for early breakthroughs given Mumbai's strong foundation. The seamers dug the ball in hard, had three slips and even employed a short square leg and a leg-slip for Rahane. Even as Rahane let most go through, Nayar scored off them by upper-cutting over the slips.
Rahane drove well on the up. He even walked across to flick Krishnakant Upadhyay past midwicket for a boundary but was dismissed when the seamer trapped him in front with a delivery that nipped back in from the off stump. Rahane was dismissed for 129, but Nayar was well set by then.
There were two ball changes within a space of three overs in Mumbai's innings this morning, a common occurrence across games this opening Ranji round. Though this will raise questions about the quality of balls being used, Nayar may have partly had a role to play. He drilled Kartik past long-on and dispatched another delivery into the North Stand, and it wasn't long before the umpires got together to replace the ball. Agarkar helped Nayar take the score past 400 with a few stylish drives and pulls in a quick cameo.
Agarkar added 60 in under 12 overs with Nayar, who continued to pierce a crowded cordon behind the stumps and drove well down the ground. Nayar's low stance and lack of flourish in shot-making made Agarkar look the more attractive batsman, but Nayar's superior consistency was an outcome of a style of his own. "Obviously, I'm not going to try and look stylish if I'm not," Nayar said. "I can bat with a lot of intent, a lot of will."
Powar joined Nayar after lunch - the previous session had yielded 118 runs in 31.1 overs - and gave the scoring-rate a further boost. After a few failed attempts to swing hard, he finally made good contact against spin. He took several chances against the flighted delivery and scored freely both straight and through extra cover, and helped take Mumbai past 500 as his partner turned to gradual accumulation.
Nayar was on 86 when joined by the No. 11 Zaheer Khan and was put down by wicketkeeper Mahesh Rawat when trying to cut Kartik. "I was a little skeptical with the way things were going because the ball was turning and bouncing," Nayar said. "But when Zak came in, he told me to keep playing and that he'd try and stay around till the end."
Zaheer was there long enough for Nayar to bring up his century in a manner that triggered an animated celebration. After reaching the landmark with a six, Nayar leapt, pumped his fists and raised his bat, before thanking Zaheer who helped him through the last 14 runs.
Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo