Zaheer, Nayar keep Mumbai alive with thrilling win
Mumbai 304 (Pawar 111*, Pandey 6-54) and 250 for 5 decl. (Jaffer 67, Nayar 62*) beat Madhya Pradesh 244 (Choudhary 76, Harpreet 50) and 303 (Saxena 128, Zaheer 5-79, Nayar 3-56) by seven runs
Mumbai beat Madhya Pradesh by seven runs at the Holkar Stadium in Indore to stay alive in this year's Ranji Trophy. It was a thriller that shook Ranji Trophy into life despite ordinary fielding and umpiring. MP had never beaten Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy before this, and they were not taking a draw for a result. Mumbai, who came in without a win this season, dug deep inside to find resolve. Jalaj Saxena scored a century full of cuts and pulls that made MP - chasing 311 in 78 overs - favourites for the win, but Zaheer Khan and Abhishek Nayar turned it around in the afternoon to take the last six wickets for 70 runs.
Zaheer bowled an unbroken 13-over spell, Nayar brought out his inner mongrel to bowl for the whole session, running Saxena out and taking three wickets, including the rampaging No. 11 Ishwar Pandey who hit three sixes in his 14-ball 24 for a final twist.
Mumbai, who had taken three points through the first-innings lead, had more to lose than MP (one point) on the final day, and it showed in their approaches. Mumbai remained cautious once the MP openers got off to a start, but MP played with abandon, never giving up the chase. However, this could still come back to haunt MP, who are placed second in the table with 21 points and with one match to go. Had they settled for a draw, they would have ensured a bigger distance between themselves and Mumbai, who are now just one point behind.
Had MP done so, though, we wouldn't have got ourselves a close match to savour. Mumbai added quick runs in the morning to give themselves 78 overs to bowl MP out for a second time. It seemed then that it would be Mumbai v time, but Saxena had other ideas. He came out attacking, taking most of his runs behind square, cutting and pulling with aplomb. Even the pitched-up deliveries he chose to drive square more than through cover. Just before lunch, though, MP lost Naman Ojha, who had been lucky twice to have not been given out.
At that time, MP needed 221 in 55.5 overs. This was a good pitch. It had seam movement, but it also had pace. If it helped bowlers, it had great value for good strokes. Mumbai, however, were on the back foot. They didn't want to let go of the three points. They came back with defensive fields. MP pulled off a surprise by promoting left-arm spinner Ankit Sharma. If he was sent to pinch-hit, the move was only pinching MP. Ankit got stuck, and Saxena felt the pressure to do the scoring all by himself.
Saxena, though, kept doing that. Despite Ankit's 30 off 76 balls, the stand was worth 85 in 26.2 overs. It didn't help Mumbai that Zaheer kept going off the field, coming back on and then going off. Just before tea, though, Zaheer came back for what would prove a decisive spell. First Ankit drove him straight to cover. Then Udit Birla steered him straight to slip. He kept toying with Devendra Bundela with his bouncers before eventually getting him out with what proved to be the last ball before tea.
Moreover, that final wicket came through a blinder from a struggling wicketkeeepr Aditya Tare. Mumbai were now pumped. They let Zaheer Khan lead them off for the tea break. It was 193 for 4, and MP now needed 118 in 26.2 overs. Mumbai seemed to have all the momentum, but Saxena and a fearless Harpreet Singh put paid to that. They added 40 runs in less than 10 overs.
Nayar now started bowling well wide of off stump. The umpire called one of them a wide. Ajit Agarkar, the captain, began to take his time between deliveries. Arguments began. Tempers were lost. Agarkar and umpires were seen in an argument. Two overs went for just one run: Zaheer bowled a maiden, and Nayar one over wide outside off with just one wide. Tension simmered. Harpreet bunted Nayar to leg, Saxena wanted a quick single, Nayar sprinted across, Saxena was sent back, Nayar threw, Saxena dived. Short. An underperforming fielding unit found life.
Nayar was doing it once again for Mumbai. In his next over, Nayar should have had Satyam Choudhury, the half-centurion from the first innings, caught at the wicket but was denied. Two balls later, he trapped his man lbw. Now it was down to 69 runs in 15 overs. For the first time, an MP defeat became a possibility.
All four results were possible at the start of the mandatory overs. Zaheer and Nayar kept going. In back-to-back overs, Zaheer got Rahul Bakshi and Anand Rajan. The latter was sawn off for the second time in the match. This ball was clearly headed down leg. It didn't take away from a super five-for from Zaheer. MP were in clear strife now, needing 59 runs.
MP surprisingly didn't give up still. Amarjeet Singh, No. 10, drove firmly into Zaheer's knuckles before hoisting him for a six over long-off. That sent him off the field. Nayar kept teasing Harpreet with that wide line, though, and eventually drew the edge. Surely MP would now play for a draw?
Not today. The last wicket needed 44 in 7.3 overs, but Pandey and Amarjeet went for it. Mumbai's poor fielding raised its head again as Iqbal Abdullah dropped Pandey for nought. Zaheer went off to get treatment on his hurt hand. Amarjeet punched Agarkar for a brutal four. Zaheer came back. Pandey tonked him for a six over midwicket.
Down to 20 required in four overs, Mumbai were worried again. It was down to that man Nayar again. Pandey, ever then iceman, off-drove him for a flat six over long-off. Two balls later another. All of a sudden it was just eight required. Everybody, bar slip and gully, was on the fence now. Pandey, though, was high on adrenalin and went for a third six. The ball wasn't quite that full, and he holed out to extra cover.
Nayar went down on his knees with arms spread, and the rest of Mumbai team surrounded him. The MP viewing balcony was stunned. The Ranji Trophy had once again produced the kind of thrilling finish only it can produce.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo