Mumbai lower order covers the slack again
Last Ranji season, Wasim Jaffer and Ajinkya Rahane laid domestic attacks to waste, each stacking up in excess of 1000 runs - a touchstone of Ranji batting excellence. On the back of their performances, Mumbai swept to the title.
This season, Jaffer and Rahane are Mumbai's heaviest run-getters as well, but haven't shown the magical form of 2008-09. Still, Mumbai enter the fourth day of the final in good shape to retain the crown. That has been down to their coach Praveen Amre's Duncan Fletcher-esque insistence on getting his bowlers to improve their batting. Their record of not having been defeated outright in a Ranji game for more than three years remains intact mainly due to the lower order dousing the flames each time the top order combusted.
In their first match, they were seven down and 31 short of Punjab's first-innings score - Ramesh Powar and Onkar Khanvilkar secured the lead with a 173-run stand. Against Himachal Pradesh, they were only 160 ahead and seven down in the second innings - Ajit Agarkar makes a century and puts on 91 with Iqbal Abdulla, and Mumbai go on to win.
It was a similar theme in Mysore. After Wasim Jaffer bravely chose to bat, the swing and accuracy of R Vinay Kumar had them gasping at 106 for 6. No problem. Vinayak Samant grinds out a half-century despite being struck on the helmet by an Abhimanyu Mithun snorter, and Mumbai reach the respectability of 233.
In the second innings, Mithun scythed through the top order to leave the visitors at 51 for 5. Enter another unlikely batting hero, Dhawal Kulkarni, whose only half-century was way back in 2005 for Mumbai Under-17s. Unfazed by the bouncers hurled at him at the start of the innings, he set about blunting the Karnataka attack with Abhishek Nayar.
The trouble for Karnataka was the back-up for Mithun and Vinay was inadequate. In both innings, they got the breakthroughs with the new ball, but the rest of the attack couldn't follow up. S Aravind was ineffective, Sunil Joshi's experiments with Saqlain Mushtaq-like deliveries bowled from behind the stumps didn't yield results and Stuart Binny wasn't even used in the second innings.
Mithun and Vinay had already sent down 16 overs and couldn't carry on much longer when Kulkarni walked out. Once they were seen off, the Mumbai batsmen got the breathing space they needed to play themselves in. With hardly any alarms they collected 36 runs, prompting the captain Robin Uthappa to bring back an exhausted Vinay into the attack just before stumps on the third day. The result? An uncharacteristically erratic Vinay was slapped for five off-side fours in two overs by Kulkarni.
It was a bizarre wagon-wheel for Kulkarni at the end of the second day - 34 runs on the off side, and only one on the leg side, and that too when he fended a sharp bouncer to backward square leg.
The trend continued on the third day. A wicket looked round the corner when Mithun and Vinay had the ball, only for the batsmen to re-assert themselves once the other came on to bowl. Kulkarni continued to slash through the off side, and when a square-drive for four took him to his half-century, he celebrated by joyously twirling his bat in the direction the dressing-room. What better occasion for a maiden first-class fifty, when the team is in a crisis in the second innings of the biggest match of the season.
Kulkarni remained hard to prise out even after three quick wickets, and started stitching a partnership with the No. 10 Ramesh Powar. In a bid to cut the off-side runs, Karnataka adopted a 7-2 field, only to concede easy runs in the massive vacant arc between mid-on and fine leg. Again, it needed a new ball and Karnataka's spearheads to return and snap a 61-run ninth-wicket association, but by then Mumbai's lead had stretched past 310, the highest target ever chased down in a Ranji final.
Strengthening the lower-order has been a priority for Mumbai at the start of the season, and Amre said. "We worked with Dhawal and Iqbal especially," he said. "When you want to win the championship all the 11 have to contribute, especially in the batting."
The investment has paid - Abdulla has three half-centuries this season, and Kulkarni's 87 looks set to extend Karnataka's Ranji title drought. "I was not expecting that many runs from Dhawal," Amre said, "but I was sure he would be part of a good partnership and I think he has got sound defence."
The mood of the festive crowd that will flock to the Gangothri Glades is likely to sour, unless Karnataka's lower order emulate their Mumbai counterparts' heroics.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo