It's the second season in a row that domestic heavyweights Mumbai haven't reached the Ranji Trophy knockouts, and it's four years since they last won the title, under Aditya Tare in 2015-16. It is not just the lack of that trophy in their cabinet that must be hurting them but also the manner in which they bowed out of the quarter-finals race that must have deepened their wounds. Mumbai won only one game this season, lost by 10 wickets to Railways, and had lost out in the knockouts race even before the last round had begun.
They eventually finished 13th on the joint points table of Groups A and B, from which five teams go through out of 18. Last season too, they had finished with the same number of points - 17 from eight games with one win - and in their first match this season it appeared that they had taken steps to make amends, when they thrashed Baroda by 309 runs.
From there, though, Mumbai went down a slippery slope. They could not score 200 even once in four innings against Railways and Karnataka in consecutive losses, they got one of the flattest pitches of the tournament against Uttar Pradesh for a draw, and their clash against Himachal Pradesh in Dharamsala didn't even see a full day's play because of rain, giving them only one point from the game. Attribute it to luck or not, Mumbai could not step up when they really had to.
"Those losses against Railways and Karnataka was a low for us," coach Vinayak Samant tells ESPNcricinfo. "We took some risk by keeping a green top against Railways and it backfired. Both were seaming wickets and we lost both tosses, [both teams asked us to bat] and we struggled to put on even 170 and 200."
Those two losses at home pushed Mumbai down so much that they weren't able to recover for the rest of the season. Samant admits that the team failed in all three departments. Their senior batsmen didn't score in those two losses, their bowling attack lacked experience, and their fielding was not up to the mark for the second reason in a row.
"We put down some crucial catches in the slips, there was a stumping or two [missed]," Samant says. "Last year as well our fielding wasn't up to the mark and this time again. Sometimes it becomes tough to bounce back in the game after dropping a catch. From the bowlers' perspective also, we didn't get a few leg-befores, like in the last match (against Madhya Pradesh). Against Karnataka a couple of decisions went against us. But these things happen, it's part and parcel of the game. The crucial thing was, despite the dropped chances, we didn't get the breakthroughs which is attributable to lack of bowling experience."
"Senior players need to realise themselves that they've let Mumbai down this year. Had Sarfaraz not struck that form, it would have been a disaster. If you analyse every innings, only two batsmen have scored. The players have to do a lot of soul-searching."MILIND REGE, CHIEF SELECTOR
Mumbai's pace attack was being led by Tushar Deshpande this season. Dhawal Kulkarni, who picked up a hamstring injury after the T20 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and Shardul Thakur, who was representing India in ODIs and T20Is, were both missing. The dent of that inexperience was deepened further when their fielders put down chances. One of them was dropping R Ashwin early in his innings when Mumbai went to Chennai after their loss to Karnataka. They posted 488 and reduced Tamil Nadu to 195 for 7 on the third day but then dropped Ashwin. The No. 8 capitalised with a century stand alongside R Sai Kishore and went on to score 79 to help the team post 324. Tamil Nadu followed-on on the last day, but Ashwin ensured Mumbai didn't earn a win.
Mumbai have endured torrid times like this in the past and even bounced back to win titles. In 2015-16, they started the season with a loss to Jammu & Kashmir, they were skittled for 101 by Railways in the next game, and were deep in the pits at 57 for 6 against UP. There was even an on-field altercation between Suryakumar Yadav and Thakur in one of the games and it all looked gloomy for them. However, Tare struck a century, Shreyas Iyer played counter-attacking knocks, Thakur finished with 41 wickets to be among the top five wicket-takers, and Mumbai lifted their 41st Ranji title.
This time, though, not even the senior players were able to pull them out of this dark abyss. Ajinkya Rahane, Aditya Tare, Siddhesh Lad and latest international star Prtihvi Shaw's scores in those two losses against Railways and Karnataka narrate the story. Rahane made 5, 8, 7 and 1, Tare 4, 14, 0 and 6, Lad 14, 8, 4 and 4 and Shaw managed 12, 23 and 29.
Fifteen innings for a total of 139 runs with a combined experience of 300 first-class games behind them. From there, it was no surprise that things got worse. Rahane, Shaw and Yadav all left for New Zealand at different times, whether for A games or international matches, and the depleted Mumbai side crashed out.
"It becomes very crucial to control the innings when you lose wickets in a cluster and our batsmen could not do that," Samant says of the collapses they endured. "We were 81 for 4 in one game and then we suddenly collapsed completely. The biggest surprise was that Lad was going through a rough patch because he hardly scored 200 runs (174) in the season and last season he had scored 600-650 runs. He was out of form. We had backed him since he is a senior player.
"It's mainly the lack of discipline in our batting that cost us. If someone had done that and taken the responsibility, like Sarfaraz [Khan] did later…It's just unfortunate because we have such stalwarts but we lost those two crucial matches. This is not a blame-game but just the responsibility they should have taken. Sometimes you've to respect the game, stay on the back foot, see some balls through, and we were missing that discipline in all three departments."
If Khan had not scored all those runs, Mumbai's campaign would have been a "disaster", chief selector Milind Rege says. Khan did not play Mumbai's first two games - against Baroda and Railways - and started off with a half-century against Karnataka before an unbeaten 301 against Uttar Pradesh, a 226 not out versus Himachal Pradesh, 78 opposite Saurashtra and another impressive 177 in the last game, against Madhya Pradesh. A tally of 928 runs in only nine innings with an average of 154.66, the best this season so far.
"Our batting has failed miserably despite some big names in the first three or four games," Rege said. "And then many players went away but the plus point is also that those who replaced the senior players, who left, have done better. There are good youngsters coming up: Sarfaraz Khan was absolutely fantastic, the opening batsman [Hardik] Tamore was good, and Aakarshit Goel scored a hundred on debut.
"Senior players need to realise themselves that they've let Mumbai down this year. Had Sarfaraz not struck that form, it would have been a disaster. If you analyse every innings, only two batsmen have scored. The players have to do a lot of soul-searching."
Rege believes it was also the lack of firepower in the bowling attack that cost Mumbai.
"Over the last five years Mumbai hasn't produced a single bowler, except for Shardul Thakur. So what are the coaches doing? We need fast bowlers. Give us a bowler who bowls 140kmh, nobody bowls that. The bowling strengths have gone down."
As a result, Mumbai squandered some strong positions and suffered, with the Tamil Nadu game not the only instance. They had set Saurashtra a target of 290 on the last day of their must-win game in Rajkot and even reduced them to 83 for 7 with over 40 overs to go, but Mumbai's bowlers could not strike even once and came back with a draw. Against Madhya Pradesh in the next game at home, they set a target of 408 and had the visitors at 183 for 6, but went wicketless again for over 35 overs.
Add to that the off-field issues Mumbai cricket has been grappling with for more than a year now, and the association has several headaches before the next season: the entire selection panel had quit about a year ago, the MCA was haphazardly looking for a coach before the beginning of the current season, and a selection controversy saw them sack two of the new selectors a few months ago.
By the time the next season arrives, Mumbai will probably have a new set of selectors and maybe a new coach too. The set of players, however, is likely to remain the same and it is mainly them who can turn Mumbai's fortunes around.
Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo