Mumbai stalwarts put last season's trouble behind
A jubilant Mumbai team revelling after another title, a few fans shouting one of the most common chants in Mumbai, 'ganapati bappa morya', and others yelling perhaps the most common chant in Indian cricket, 'Sachin, Sachin'. The scenes after the Ranji Trophy final were familiar ones.
It was a far cry from the despondent end to their previous campaign. For most teams, making the semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy is an achievement, as it was for Punjab this season. Not for Mumbai, though, for whom anything less than a title is not good enough. Not only did they lose in the semi-finals, but there was also a major difference of opinion between the coach and the captain.
Sulakshan Kulkarni, the coach, had termed the captain Wasim Jaffer's failures in the knockouts as one of the biggest reasons for Mumbai's exit, and he had also criticised Jaffer's leadership, calling him a "defensive captain with defensive approach". Jaffer, who had led the side for four seasons and had guided them to the title twice, stepped down.
To add to that, another senior player, Ajit Agarkar, was sulking after feeling 'humiliated' at being dropped from the XI on the eve of a match. That led to one more stalwart, Zaheer Khan, lambasting the chairman of selectors and the coach, saying that "they are actually pulling Mumbai cricket back." Agarkar had flown home from Cuttack after he was axed, and withdrew from the squad for the entire season.
This year, not only was Agarkar welcomed back, he was made captain as well, for the first time in his 17-season career. And with Ajinkya Rahane away on national duties most of the time, Jaffer was reunited with his favourite opening spot. Both veterans duly delivered.
Agarkar served up a match-turning 145 in the semi-final against Services, where hail, rain and a wet pitch in Palam could have taken the game to the toss of a coin. In the final, he was instrumental in Saurashtra's second-innings collapse, ripping through the top order with the new ball.
Sachin Tendulkar singled out Agarkar for praise after the victory. "I feel especially happy for Ajit Agarkar, who had a rough season last year," he said. "It was fairly difficult for him, all the more reason to be excited. He has led from the front, and led beautifully, performed when it mattered."
The acting MCA president Ravi Sawant also highlighted Agarkar's role. "Even when he was injured and not able to play (due to a calf injury early in the season) he travelled with the team," Sawant said.
Agarkar had spoken about the honour of leading Mumbai in a Ranji final, saying he was well aware of the illustrious players who had captained the side in the past. "I'm very, very happy, won a few before, to win as captain is even more special," he said, soon after title No. 40 was wrapped up.
"Especially after not reaching the final for two years, the guys were very keen to do well this season," he said. "We didn't have a smooth sailing in the league stage, but come the knockouts I think we've shown that we know how to play knockouts well. (This is) right up there, winning Ranji Trophy is not easy and, as the years have gone, it has become tougher because other teams have improved."
Jaffer, on his part, tapped into the rich run-scoring vein that has made him such a feared opponent on the Ranji circuit. In seven matches, he racked up four half-centuries and three hundreds, claiming the prestigious Ranji records for most runs and most tons, before capping it off with the 132 that earned him the Man-of-the-Match award in the final.
He shrugged off last season's disappointment. "Over a period of 16-17 years, you will perform in a few games, you won't perform in a few games, whatever happened last year doesn't matter," he had said, before re-training his sights on what he does best. "As long as I play for Mumbai, or wherever, I just want to score runs."
Agarkar was quick to praise Jaffer's achievements this season. "Exceptional, he has been doing it for us every game year after year, that's been his strength, to play an innings of that kind on this pitch under pressure is special, that's why he's got the amount of runs that he has and the records he has." The two stalwarts have been key to Mumbai's continued pre-eminence on the domestic scene over the past two decades. This was Jaffer's eighth Ranji title, and Agarkar's seventh. Both have at least as many trophies as the next most successful team, Delhi, and aren't showing any signs of stopping yet.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo