Fall-out of knockout
The Mumbai dressing room door at the Wankhede Stadium slammed shut. Mumbai, the reigning champions, had just bowed out of the Ranji Trophy, failing to overcome Saurashtra in the final group match. The captain, Amol Muzumdar, was angry and is believed to have let rip against the players he thought failed the team. Later, along with coach Pravin Amre, Muzumdar told the hostile press it was a "collective failure."
Let's get the excuses out of the way first. Injuries had indeed depleted the pace attack: Swapnil Hazare didn't play at all this season, Ajit Agarkar limped off in the crucial game against Himachal Pradesh and Aavishkar Salvi played only three games. There was also talk, led by Muzumdar, of being denied home advantage. All their games at the Wankhede Stadium ended in draws as compared to the last year when they won three games played at home. But when a team like Saurashtra enter the semis despite playing all their games away from home, you expect Mumbai to overcome these issues.
What really let them down, though, was the often shocking attitude of the batsmen in crunch situations and the inability of the bowlers to rise to the occasion. In the crucial match against Maharashtra Ramesh Powar lost his head when it mattered. A few runs away from the lead, and three vital points, he played a careless stroke to get out. Vinayak Samant too erred in his shot selection and Mumbai were left stranded. To be fair to Powar, he had hit a fighting ton to pull the team out of jail but threw it away in the end.
Their next game was against Himachal Pradesh, whom they couldn't bowl out even after they were forced to follow-on. "We should have finished them off there. Our bowlers just couldn't do it," says Muzumdar. Powar's bowling fortunes dipped after the first two games where he picked 15 wickets and that really hurt Mumbai this season.
Then, against Saurashtra, in their final game, they could have found themselves an honourable exit route by getting the first-innings lead. The teams would have tied in points and Mumbai would have only gone out of semis because of more wins equation. Muzumdar did his best, hitting 187 in his 100th Ranji game, to take his team close. But a horror show followed. Rohit Sharma, who has had a bad season and faced only 294 balls in the middle, drove one straight to covers, Powar played an atrocious pull shot off his first ball and Samant too perished playing a similar stroke.
After letting his ire out to his team-mates, Muzumdar said the right things to the press about the collective failure and barring that comment about the pitch, he didn't play any blame games. But he couldn't hold himself back when asked a specific question about Sharma. "If he's still in the mode of Twenty20 and one-day cricket, he needs to come out of it. We are professionals here, it doesn't matter whether he has played for India. He is playing for Bombay now and there is a responsibility to shoulder."
Meanwhile, the knives are out against the Amre, whose contract is till the end of the season. A whisper campaign has already started against him. A source close to the selectors and the cricket committee, says, "What has Amre done as a coach?"
Amre has been blamed for a few selections and allegedly messing up the batting order - Prashant Naik was pushed up to play at No. 3, Hiken Shah was not given a proper run, and Vineet Indulkar was brought at the fag end of the campaign. Amre sees this as a normal course of events in a season: "Naik was pushed up as he had the technique to do well up there but he got injured. So we tried a couple of other players for that No. 3 slot as Rohit Sharma was struggling to get some form going."
Mun Mungela, the seamer, who played in the last game against Saurashtra, is considered an Amre favourite. Amre answers the accusation: "Agreed I pushed for his case but only because I think he is good. I can only suggest names to the selection committee. In fact all I asked was that the chairman [Dilip Vengsarkar] to come and see him at the nets ahead of the selection meeting. He was impressed with the boy and picked him."
Mungela, who impressed on the second day, getting lift and movement, had however looked out of sorts on the first day. He was warned twice for running on the wicket and that affected his performance. Mungela had similar problems in the only Ranji game he played before this, in the last season, and Amre's detractors wonder why this old problem has not been solved yet.
Is the accusation akin to clutching at straws or is it a case for persecution? That is something for the Cricket Committee, comprising of Madhav Apte, Milind Rege, Sanjay Manjrekar, that chose Amre as a coach, to decide.
What about the accusation that there is the Air India - the company that Amre works for - bias? "Look, that is complete rubbish. I want to have the best team and if that means we have no Air India boy or have lots of them, so be it. I am an honest and frank guy; I have no agendas."
Before the last day of the season, when Muzumdar and Ajinkya Rahane hit tons, there had been just a solitary hundred from a top-order batsman (Sahil Kukreja) this season, the other two came from the allrounders Abhishek Nayar and Powar.
Amre is disappointed by the commitment shown by some of the cricketers. "I was indeed surprised and sad by some of the shot selections and but as part of the management I do share the blame. However, as Amol said, it has to come from within. I can only suggest, point out the mistakes but they have to do it out there."
Would he recommend a few changes then? Is he ready to take hard action? "I will tell the committee what I think and I would not like to discuss it in public now. It's upto the selectors to pick the team and I will give my feedback in my report." Amre is slated to meet the committee on January 2.
Unlike Bengal, their opponent in the last year's final, they weren't relegated to Plate but it's clear that the Mumbai pride has been hurt. "Its time for introspection," says Muzumdar. Would the men in power feel similarly or are they itching to shake the setup and make some wholesale changes, starting from the top? And is the situation that dire to warrant a complete shake-up? We have to just wait and watch.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo