Mumbai's 15-man squad is generally announced four days before their first game. This season, it was unofficially announced two months in advance to give the side enough match time ahead of their Ranji Trophy opener. The first pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were stitched together at the Buchi Babu Invitational tournament, which they won. But the team was wary. Whenever they had won this prestigious tournament in Chennai, the Ranji Trophy title had eluded them that season.
The team huddled together in Aditya Tare's room. "Right, guys. This year, nothing can take the title away from us," he made each member of the squad repeat. Thus began the journey they titled 'Mission 41,' which they carried and stuck out big wherever they went. It wasn't until they were reminded about it after their post-match celebrations that it had struck them that the mission was well and truly accomplished.
It was a journey that was unlike Mumbai, without the shades of intimidation of the past. But they more than made up for it with the combined effort of 20 players, the least they have used in a season since they last won the title in 2012-13, when Saurashtra came under their wheel for the first time.
A week before the tournament in Chennai, Wasim Jaffer, their batting mainstay, announced he was moving to Vidarbha. It is believed that Jaffer, who went on to become the first batsman to score 10,000 runs in Ranji Trophy history during the course of the season, felt he was better off in a mentor-batsman role than come in the way of a young unit looking to rebuild after the disappointment of 2014-15, when they were blown away by Karnataka, the eventual champions, in the semi-finals. A slew of injuries to Jaffer while he was still with Mumbai gave them an opportunity to try out a number of openers.
Between the times Jaffer was out last season, first because of a pilgrimage to Haj and then because of a fractured finger, there was churning within the squad. Dhawal Kulkarni was away in Australia with the Indian team for close to three months and Abhishek Nayar was riddled with injuries. A number of players were tried and jettisoned.
The start to their 2014-15 season was anything but auspicious. Mumbai were beaten for the first time ever by Jammu and Kashmir in their season opener. The alarm bells were ringing loud; Sachin Tendulkar was summoned to give the team a pep talk. If they thought they couldn't sink lower, they conceded the lead to Railways in the next game after being bowled out for 101. Suddenly, talk of the glory days and the 'khadoos Mumbai spirit' gave way to the batting line-up being touted as one of the weakest in their history.
Then, in their third game against Uttar Pradesh on a greentop in Kanpur, they slipped to 57 for 6. A lead, let alone a win, looked a distant dream. Shreyas Iyer, who had failed in his first three innings, marked his arrival on the big stage with a fearless counter-attacking 75, which in the context of the game was worth much more than a century. With support from the tail, Mumbai managed a lead and eventually a win triggered by Shardul Thakur's first-innings 87 and nine-wicket match haul.
Nevertheless, there were six changes made to the side for the next match against Bengal. "Our local structure does need a rethink, because there is no guarantee that a system that has clicked for 20 years will keep clicking all the time," their head coach Pravin Amre said then. "We need to forget this famous 'Mumbai school of batting' tag and just play. It's not working now."
Just when it appeared that normalcy had been restored, Suryakumar Yadav, the newly appointed captain, and Thakur got into a confrontation on the field. Suryakumar resigned following a meeting between the selectors and Amre, after they were drubbed by Tamil Nadu. Tare, the best option available in Jaffer and Nayar's absence, was handed the mantle of a team in transition just towards the business end of the season.He marked his elevation with a century at No. 4 in a must-win game against Baroda that helped them secure a quarter-final berth.
"That knock was crucial, not just from a team point of view, but because I needed to prove myself that I could contribute at a vital time," Tare reflects. "Yes, I had done it in the IPL, but nothing like doing it in a crunch Ranji Trophy game for Mumbai. If you have to earn the respect of your teammates, you have to lead from the front. So that knock gave me the confidence, because captaining Mumbai or any state side is a big responsibility. So, we took small steps as a team there, everyone has backed me throughout; to now stand here with the trophy is amazing. It means the world to me."
One of the keys to Mumbai's success, unlike in the past, has been their drive to reinvent themselves and not play according to a set template. Bat first, pile the runs, grind the opponents down and then walk away with the lead isn't the mantra this side has followed. There has been a conscious effort to drive the game forward, and that has been piloted by Iyer and Akhil Herwadkar, two youngsters who graduated from the India Under-19 side in 2014, and Siddhesh Lad, their senior by a couple of years.
"Looking at his runs and his consistency, he's given a big boost to the team," Chandrakant Pandit, who has now coached the team to three Ranji Trophy titles, says of Iyer. "We knew that when he was at the crease, the run rate would never be a problem. We were only hoping that he would continue at the crease. And he's been doing that. The bowlers have reaped the rewards of that."
While Iyer has made a smooth transition, Herwadkar overcame a difficult start. He made his first-class debut against Odisha in 2011-12, a game remembered for Ajit Agarkar walking out of the Mumbai camp after being left out of the XI. Herwadkar made only 11 in an innings win, and was in the wilderness thereafter. He returned last season after two Under-19 World Cups, and scored a century in the quarterfinal against a star-studded Delhi. It marked his second coming as a player.
Since then, there has been no looking back. This season, Herwadkar was only second behind Iyer in the run-getters' list, with 879 runs in 11 matches.
"To have Akhil step up in that manner has helped the team in our drive towards playing a brand of cricket which I feel can become our hallmark," Tare says. "He realises his strengths, has worked hard on his game; not just him, all the young batters have come through and have evolved as batsmen, because you can't be uni-dimensional. So our approach as a group has changed. The support staff, selectors and the team management have all been on the same page, and that has helped deliver results."
Reflecting on the fairly young team in his charge, Pandit, who has won the Ranji Trophy both as player and coach, highlighted the motivation and drive of his team to get better after the disappointment of last season. "It's easy for me to get them on the same platform," he says. "They're just following instructions, they're accepting, and they're responding. That makes it easy for the coach, that's the best thing about them. When there are different kinds of characters, then it becomes difficult."
As a result of the unit bonding together and pulling in one direction, Pandit says he didn't have to use any magic wand. "They had faith in each other," he says. "When they entered the field, they knew what had to be done. It was the same age group, with same experience, and they wanted to stay together as a family. They've taken the initiative in every game, it's not that only [Shreyas] Iyer or Dhawal [Kulkarni] or [Abhishek] Nayar took the initiative. They've all shown character and that could be seen on the field."
Mumbai's march to the title has been all the more special because of how they bounced back after the early setback against Andhra, against whom they conceded a narrow lead. "It was tough," Pandit conceded. "Basically, the Mumbai team is expected to win. We believe that the beginning is very important. We were very close, but that never set us back. That was the only shock for us this season. The team said we definitely have to go all out with our planning. We spent a lot of time on that. They might probably not have liked it, but I had to do a lot of talking and planning. I'm very happy that they've been sticking to the plan since."
While the batsmen have stepped up, the bowlers, particularly the pacers, have thrived on surfaces where spin has ruled. Thakur's second successive 40-plus season wicket haul and Kulkarni's return from injury to lead the attack has boded well, while Balwinder Sandhu has played the third seamer's role efficiently.
Before the final, Tare said he did not want his team to think they were Ranji Trophy winners, because, barring himself, Kulkarni and Nayar, others had hardly been a part of a title-winning team. Four days later, his selflessness in handing the entire credit to the young group that lifted their game on several occasions completed his flowering as captain.
Only time will tell if Mumbai can sustain this surge, but the youngster-driven approach that has placed the focus back on playing to win is an approach that won't often backfire.