Tare plays down Mumbai's 'favourites' tag
Cricketers often talk about how pressure changes the equation in a knockout clash. Most times, they want to "keep it simple" and "stick to the basics." It wasn't any different ahead of the Ranji Trophy final between Mumbai and Saurashtra in Pune.
The two sides have met 53 times, with Mumbai winning on 26 occasions, while also taking the lead in 22 out of the 26 drawn games. Going by the numbers, one would not be mistaken into believing Mumbai are the overwhelming favourites for this one. But Aditya Tare, the captain, insisted, like mutual fund advisories do, that past performances do not necessarily guarantee same results in the future.
"Numbers are stacked in our favour, but the message is simple. We may have beaten them last time, but that was a team that had a few legends of Mumbai cricket," Tare told ESPNcricinfo. "Sachin Tendulkar, Wasim Jaffer and Ajit Agarkar's combined experience was much more than some of our players. We can only draw inspiration from the past; we can't really take credit.
"Barring three or four of them, no one has really won a Ranji trophy so I don't think we have the right to carry the tag on us. The teams in the past have won it 40 times; we are still young and we haven't won it yet so it will be a good challenge for us to do something special this season. Yes, we're in the final, but we have a lot to do as a team still, so you can't really judge us at the moment."
One of the things Tare underlined was the importance of driving it into everyone the fact that Mumbai were taking a fresh start after the disappointment two years ago, where they were ousted in the quarter-finals by Maharashtra. Last season, Mumbai were knocked out cold in their opener for the first time ever in Ranji Trophy history by Jammu & Kashmir, and were faced with a threat of relegation halfway into the season.
Reports of tiff between a few players and an eventual captaincy shift from Suryakumar Yadav to Tare meant a team in transition was dealt another blow. The final nail last season was hammered by Karnataka when Mumbai slumped to their lowest-ever total - 44 all out - to be blown away inside three days. That prompted an overhaul of sorts, with Chandrakant Pandit taking over from Pravin Amre for his second stint as head coach after leading Mumbai to back-to-back titles, in 2003 and 2004.
"I took over captaincy at a difficult time, but the boys backed me throughout," Tare explained. "It was a challenge back then, but the team has shown tremendous character to bounce back like they did. We ensured the base that we have built with the younger group has been carried forward. We wanted to ensure everyone gets their opportunity. To that extent, the way the younger players have grabbed their chances has been brilliant, we couldn't have asked for anything better."
As part of their rebuilding exercise towards the end of last year's campaign, the team rejigged their personnel. Balwinder Sandhu, who had last represented Mumbai in November 2013, was called up to complement Shardul Thakur and Dhawal Kulkarni, as was Nikhil Patil, who formed the bedrock of the team's batting in Abhishek Nayar's absence due to multiple injuries. Harmeet Singh, who impressed in the Buchi Babu invitational tournament, also seemed to have received second wind.
At the top of the order, Wasim Jaffer's absence for most parts of the season created a void. The side had already tried out three different openers in Kevin Almeida, Bravish Shetty and Sushant Marathe. As a part of the rotating wheel, Herwadkar's inclusion came about by chance. Herwadkar, the burly left-hander, was in the wilderness after his debut in 2011-12 during which he was a part of the Indian team at two Under-19 World Cups. He returned to the Mumbai fold and immediately made an impression at the top with his solidity.
"At the start of the season, we had defined roles to each individual, we wanted to see them flourish in their own space," Tare explained. "Playing without a worry has helped us evolve as individuals and that has reflected well."
Almost in direct acknowledgment, Herwadkar has delivered, scoring 879 runs and is currently second on Mumbai's run-charts, only behind Shreyas Iyer. With the ball, Sandhu and Thakur have been steady, if not spectacular, even as the spinners have come into their own. That they have used a pool of just 20 players, the least since they last won the title in 2012-13, points to growing signs of a settled unit.
"Mumbai looks different in the five-day format because we have grown into that mentality," Tare said. "Teams in the past have dominated the longer versions. Our support structure is really good; playing long form cricket from a young age has helped us evolve. Enjoying each other's success has been a hallmark of our team. There is no bigger sign of a team's evolution than when you see a young group of players put their hand up and deliver match."
Tare refers to youngsters often that it is convenient to forget he himself is just 28. But the manner in which he has turned around a team that was struggling to stay afloat to one that is gunning for a 41st title has been nothing short of remarkable. Now for them to reclaim silverware.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo