Resilient Mumbai enjoy better of drawn contest
Rajasthan 530 (Kanitkar 141, Bist 82, Kulkarni 4-110) and 70 for 2 (Chopra 31, Menaria 30*) drew with Mumbai 625 (Nayar 243, Rohit 100, Pankaj 5-111)
The picture of the match was a moment of pure synchronicity. Abhishek Nayar, the best batsman, caressed a square drive between point and cover off Pankaj Singh, the best bowler. Nayar and his partner Iqbal Abdulla completed a single as the ball raced past the square boundary. Then, unbeknownst to the other, Nayar and Abdulla raised their gloved left hands, swiftly whipped it down in an arc, before letting out a cry of relief. Mumbai had overtaken defending champions Rajasthan's mighty first-innings score to take the lead and pocketed three critical points.
By the end of their innings, Mumbai led by 95 runs, courtesy Nayar's first double-century in the Ranji Trophy and some sturdy partnerships from the lower order involving Abdulla, Dhawal Kulkarni, Nayar and Murtuza Hussain. The match entered the second session and a dead zone. Rajasthan played for an hour, lost their openers before the teams decided to call off the game.
Though Nayar deserved to be present to savour the moment, it was the 106-run partnership between the overnight unbeaten pair of Abdulla and Dhawal Kulkarni that had paved the way for Mumbai to overtake Rajasthan. They walked out together immediately after tea on Saturday when severe body cramps had forced Nayar to the physio's table. Mumbai were 146 runs behind, and Rajasthan sensed an opportunity to wrest control. However, Abdulla and Kulkarni, no strangers to such anxious situations, stayed calm to battle out the next two hours as Mumbai finished 92 runs adrift.
The first hour on the final morning held the key to the contest. Pankaj Singh and Deepak Chahar, Rajasthan's new-ball pair, bowled attacking lines but the Mumbai pair remained steady. Aakash Chopra, leading the side after Hrishikesh Kanitkar's injury on Saturday, employed the spin pair of Gajendra Singh and Vivek Yadav early. The moved tempted Kulkarni, who stepped out twice against each spinner and was lucky to survive having dragged his back foot in in the nick of time. Otherwise he timed his cuts and pulls well to collect five fours while Abdulla had three boundaries in the morning session.
Half an hour before lunch, Kulkarni swished at a straight, seaming delivery from Pankaj, and the thin edge was pouched easily by Rohit Jhalani behind the stumps. Mumbai were just ten runs away from Rajasthan's score. Abdulla ran towards Kulkarni, patted him on the back and ruffled his hair in appreciation. That was the story of Mumbai this match: through collective efforts - two centuries, three fifties - the hosts bounced back in a match in which they were bystanders on the first two days.
To say Mumbai managed to escape easily against an opposition that lacked a killer instinct wouldn't be wrong. Barring Pankaj, Rajasthan have an inexperienced bowling attack. Chahar overcompensated trying to go for speed and, like any rookie, struggled with his mind, lines and lengths. The inability of the spin pair of Yadav and Gajendra to break through only added to Rajasthan's woes. In three straight games this domestic season, Rajasthan have conceded 600-plus scores. In the Irani Cup, Shikar Dhawan, Abhinav Mukund and Ajinkya Rahane pummeled the hosts' bowlers in Jaipur, setting up massive totals in both innings. Last week, Karnataka batted only once to put pressure on the Rajasthan bowlers.
Rajasthan, though, are playing in the Elite league for the first time. As their captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar said, they improved with every game last season and to maintain the consistency in the higher grade against quality and seasoned opponents will be difficult.
Mumbai have their own issues to deal with. The most significant among them could be the difference of opinions between the selectors and the team management. On the second evening after the day's play, Mumbai coach Sulakshan Kulkarni laughed at the suggestion from a media person that his team had home advantage playing at Brabourne. According to Kulkarni, the Brabourne pitch was flat and put pressure on his bowlers who toiled on the first two days in vain. Reportedly, his remarks did not sit well with his own selectors, who felt Kulkarni should look at his bowlers who failed miserably in their lengths and lines.
"Why was there no third man for most part of the Rajasthan first innings. About 75 runs were leaked there," said an aggrieved Mumbai selector. "And what about bowling part-time bowlers in Nayar and Kaustubh Pawar after tea on the second day. Why was Ramesh Powar only bowled for a handful of overs (six) on Friday. The field was also not attacking when all the specialist batsmen were out," were questions that the selector rolled out.
Mumbai have plenty to think about in order to avoid any hiccups when they meet a tougher opponent in Karnataka in four days' time at the same venue.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo