Putting a side in at the Wankhede - a track where you usually win the toss and bat - as North Zone did against West Zone in the Duleep Trophy final on Tuesday is a move that falls somewhere between the bold and the foolhardy.
Delhi and Mumbai have experienced contrasting fortunes after winning the toss at the Wankhede this season. Mumbai chose to field against Maharashtra and Saurashtra, only to see them rack up big totals. Delhi, on the other hand, put Mumbai in in a league match, and bowled them out for 166 before the wicket flattened out. Then, in the Ranji final, they asked Uttar Pradesh to bat; this time the tactic didn't really work, as UP scored 342, but Delhi fought back to easily chase the 230 needed to win.
Mumbai drew flak for the move, criticised for overconfidence in their bowling resources, while Delhi drew laurels. Severe criticism generally is the case when a captain fields first and it backfires, as Nasser Hussain found out after the Brisbane Test in 2002.
Moreover, the Wankhede track usually sports a tinge of green. So, if the decision to bowl first goes wrong, the captain (a batsman in most cases) also leaves himself open to accusations of dodging the tough conditions.
"Captains do ask me to shave off the grass a day before," says Sudhir Naik, the curator at the Wankhede Stadium. "It's not always a brave move to bowl first here, sometimes the captains are just shielding their batsmen because there is always some grass on the wicket."
In that light, Mithun Manhas made a brave decision, drawing confidence from the two previous successes this season. Also, Manhas had learned that the wicket was watered the previous evening to leave some moisture in the morning. And Delhi, and North Zone in this case, have had at least one bowler capable of exploiting the seaming conditions well, whereas Mumbai haven't had the services of a consistently good seamer this season.
Two hours into the Duleep final, it looked like a decision gone horribly wrong for Manhas and North, with the in-form Ajinkya Rahane looking set for a big score. However, despite what the scorecard suggested, (West 130 for 2, Rahane 64 off 74 balls, VRV giving away 60 in 12 overs) Manhas and VRV kept backing themselves.
"There's always that sting in the Mumbai wicket, which keeps you interested," Manhas said later. "It might not be exaggerated movement, but there is extra bounce and a little movement. So we were not too worried." In that regard, a typical Wankhede wicket is an ideal wicket, always keeping both the parties interested.
Also, VRV's figures didn't portray the way he troubled Rahane in the first session, beating him with ones that held their line instead of coming in. Just after lunch, he rid Manhas and himself of whatever anxiety there might have been. In two balls - his first deliveries after lunch - he turned the game North's way by claiming the big wickets of Parthiv Patel and Cheteshwar Pujara. Combined with the lack of application some of the West batsmen showed, it required another short burst from VRV post-tea to vindicate Manhas' decision. But all along it was a decision that came out of conviction and faith in his attack, as three slips and two gullies at the score of 100-odd for 1 suggested.
A move that seemed a disaster has transformed into a masterstroke. However, Manhas will know he and his batsmen will need to apply themselves as they reply to West's effort, because the "sting will be there for the entire match".