How misfiring Mumbai pull through together

Shreyas Iyer bunts one through cover point John Michel

A few days after a hard-fought quarter-final win against Hyderabad, Mumbai captain Aditya Tare's mind went back to the 2006-07 Ranji Trophy season. Back then, Mumbai had a disastrous start to their campaign with no points from their first three games. However, under the leadership of captain Amol Muzumdar and coach Pravin Amre, they rebounded spectacularly to win five matches in a row and claim their 37th title.

One game, though, stands out in Tare's memory:Mumbai's 63-run win against Baroda in the semi-finals after being reduced to 0 for 5 by Irfan Pathan in their second innings. It's a game Tare and his team often talk about in the dressing room; to him, such matches re-inforce Mumbai's ability to find a way to win no matter how dire the situation. Although Mumbai haven't endured the sort of crisis Muzumdar & Co. were confronted with a decade ago, they could use the inspiration given their patchy performance this year.

While it's easy to look at the standings -Mumbai finished on top in the group stage for the second year in succession - and picture a Mumbai juggernaut, in reality they have had to scrap hard to make the semi-finals. The points chart tells you Mumbai have secured three wins - the highest in their group - but it doesn't reveal a flimsy batting line-up that has produced an average score of 253 runs, a drop of 87 from last season's tally. It also shows Mumbai haven't lost a game yet, but doesn't tell you they dropped first-innings points in two of their last three group-stage games.

It isn't as if Mumbai's road to their 41st title last season was paved with flowers, but then they had the luxury of big batting performances and a fired-up Shardul Thakur. On neutral surfaces this year, a malfunctioning top order and a rash of injuries has meant Mumbai have often been unable to exert the dominance they are wont to. That they have used 22 players - the most for any team playing in the knockouts - and have now called-up teenager Prithvi Shaw tells the story.

None of their gun batsmen, including Shreyas Iyer, whose breakout season last year produced 1321 runs, has managed to reach 600 runs this season. They have used six openers opposed to five last year, but while Akhil Herwadkar's assurance at the top helped shore up one slot in 2015-16, his injury midway through this season meant both the positions needed to be filled. With Kaustubh Pawar and Jay Bista not making their opportunities count, the opening slots have continued to resemble revolving doors.

On the bowling front, Thakur has had to do most of the heavy-lifting after Dhawal Kulkarni (19 wickets from three games) injured his knee. Thakur, though, has managed only 17 wickets from eight games, a far cry from last season's tally of 41 scalps from 11 games. Pleasingly for Mumbai, their bowling has largely been kept afloat by a pair of 21-year-olds in their maiden first-class seasons: left-arm spinner Vijay Gohil (24 wickets) and seamer Tushar Deshpande (21 wickets) have emerged as Mumbai's leading wicket-takers so far.

Tare is chuffed about the emergence of such fresh talent, and believes there is no point complaining about the number of injuries. "The left-arm spinner's place was here and there with Vishal [Dabholkar] being up and down. But, Vijay Gohil has been bowling well and looks a terrific find, and Tushar has been exceptional," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "He is coming in and hitting the deck hard, and bowls with a lot of heart.

"It's just the pool of players we are fortunate to have in Mumbai and it [the injuries] creates an exposure for such bench strength. Honestly, not every season you will have purple patches for five-six batters; there are going to be seasons you will have a struggling batting or bowling unit. That's the challenge that teams with strong characters overcome."

Allrounder Abhishek Nayar, who has been Mumbai's ballast as the third seamer and in the lower middle order, believes Mumbai have benefited from investing in a wider squad of 30-35 players. As a result, he says, younger players coming into the team don't feel daunted by the challenge of first-class cricket. "We try and keep everyone in the loop, so at any given point if anyone is brought in they are ready and don't feel out of place," he says. "I think that helps because when someone feels he is a part of the team all he has to do is come and play the same kind of cricket he's being playing somewhere else. The big problem is when he has to come in and try and fit in. But, most guys who enter our team are pretty comfortable, and they feel like they are playing for their club or company."

Central to creating such an environment is to ensure the players are in a happy space off the field. Bonding sessions, therefore, are a constant throughout the season regardless of the team's on-field performances. After the last league game against Punjab where Mumbai were made to follow-on, about 20-22 players, who have been part of the team this season, took off to Lonavala for a picnic. Then, ahead of their semi-final against Tamil Nadu, the team got together to watch the latest Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal.

"I feel it is important we spend more time off the field to get to know each other," Tare says. "When you are good friends off the field, the camaraderie shows on the field as well. Nayar is the captain of team activities and entertainment. He always comes up with new things to get the team going. Even the coach (Chandrakant Pandit) gives a lot of freedom to do our off-field stuff.

"The atmosphere in the team is quite chilled out. Everyone sort of opens up and enjoys these sessions. That eases the atmosphere."

But, things aren't always this gooey. Nayar says the team is always open to criticism and doesn't hold back on frank talk. "The team-talk sometimes becomes a little harsh, but we understand the pressure that comes with playing for Mumbai," he says. "I think everyone reacts pretty well [to such harsh talk]. Everyone has enormous respect for the coach, senior players and Adu [Tare].

"We know what expectations we have from ourselves. Sometimes when it doesn't go well, we understand everybody is under a lot of pressure - the coach and everybody else - so we are okay with getting a firing from our coaches."

Both Nayar and Tare, however, are aware that the onus is on the seniors to deflect pressure off the younger players. "We don't expect a Tushar to bowl a match-winning five or seven-wicket haul spell, but we hope he does," Nayar says. "But, we also understand that it means Shardul or me or whoever has the experience has to step up their game a bit and cover up for others. All 11 players will not click at once, but it's about those four-five players who do it well so that the team is out of trouble.

"Someone like Adu and me have a good heart-to-heart discussion after most games and talk about what went wrong or what can be done going forward. We don't wait for things to happen. The fact that we are winning is because we understand we aren't playing our best cricket, so to win games we have to put in a lot of effort."

So how do Mumbai gear up for a marquee last-four clash? "I don't think we need to keep the semi-final tag in mind," Tare says. "It's important we don't put too much pressure on ourselves first and also on the youngsters." What Tare wants to remember, however, is Mumbai's glorious history over the years, not least his team's thrilling wins over Tamil Nadu in Lahli and Mumbai in the last two seasons.

"It's such a great contest between two powerhouses of Indian cricket, so naturally the intensity of the game is going to be up there," he says. "Sometimes it is required that we draw inspiration from our earlier games against a particular team.

"If you have a great history, you are always inspired by it. Every now and then, there is talk about how we have won from difficult situations or how our previous captains and coaches have inspired. These things remind us that we were in such tough situations where any other team would have given up and lost, but Mumbai never give up and always fight."