Sulakshan Kulkarni, Mumbai's coach, has singled out the failure of his senior batsmen and their inability to adapt to the situation in the knockouts as the main reason behind the team not reaching the Ranji final. The trio of Wasim Jaffer, the Mumbai captain, Abhishek Nayar and Suryakumar Yadav not performing in the semi-finals against Tamil Nadu proved fatal and Kulkarni, in his first season as coach, did not shy away from holding them responsible.
"As far as our batting was concerned we completely played very bad cricket," Kulkarni said, highlighting the first-innings performance in the semis as the worst. After Jaffer elected to field, Tamil Nadu recovered from a critical 139 for 6, to post a healthy 359 in their first innings. In response, Mumbai failed miserably, folding up for 157.
Jaffer was unlucky to be adjudged lbw by the umpire K Hariharan, as there was big inside edge and the gully fielder leapt forward to attempt the catch. That aside, Jaffer had been struggling throughout the season, recording an aggregate of 406 runs in nine matches across twelve innings with just one century at an average of 45.11.
Jaffer, usually one of the top run-getters in the season, had failed by his own high standards. "We lost this year and one of the biggest factors was Wasim's batting," Kulkarni said. "We needed him the most in the last two matches. It was a big loss to us."
The worst of the shot selection came from the pair of Nayar and Yadav in the semi-final. What saddened their coach was how two of his best batsmen had erred at the most important juncture in the tournament.
Against Tamil Nadu, Nayar and Yadav had started re-building the innings from 14 for 3 after the Mumbai top order collapsed. But when the partnership was worth 47, Nayar opted to play a scoop in the very first over from the left-arm spinner Aushik Srinivas, offering an easy catch. Yadav, too, poked at a delivery from Yo Mahesh that moved away, to nick to the wicketkeeper. Yadav had just crossed his fifth half-century of the season, but wasted an opportunity to convert into a big score. Now he would need to be happy being the third-highest run-maker this season with 754 runs.
"Yadav should have taken the responsibility when the team needed him the most," Kulkarni said. "I was a bit disappointed with Abhishek. We were 15 for 3 and around then we had a 45-50 run partnership. That time we needed a big partnership. And being a senior player Abhishek Nayar should have taken the initiative. He had played so well in the season."
Kulkarni said the gameplan went awry once Mumbai had let Tamil Nadu out of the jail. "We thought if we could bundle them out for below 200 we had a very good chance. Also, on the first day the pitch was seaming and we had our chances when they were 139 for six," Kulkarni pointed out. "But after that we did not attack the lower order and an opportunity was missed."
The Tamil Nadu lower order, marshalled by Ramaswamy Prasanna, bounced back strongly. Prasanna went on to score a brilliant ton, his second after five years, and importantly, stitch a valuable 155-run partnership for the seventh wicket with Mahesh, who scored a steadfast half-century himself. That put the visitors back on track and they did not suffer from any further stage fright.
In contrast Mumbai registered their lowest innings total of the season. In the eight completed innings so far in the season, Mumbai had crossed the 400-run mark seven times. Even in the one match they missed out, against Saurashtra, they had managed to score 360. Kulkarni was happy with the consistency they had shown until then.
Kulkarni admitted the youngsters in the squad had suffered from nerves during the knockouts. But after Mumbai had recovered from a disastrous position against Madhya Pradesh in the quarterfinals, Kulkarni was confident they would regroup against Tamil Nadu.
In the quarters Mumbai were in dire straits at 70 for five, but Kaustubh Pawar remained stoic to register a big hundred and Ankit Chavan hit a resolute century. But Kulkarni said the pressure in the semis was more only because Tamil Nadu were a better team "man to man". "They were a far superior team. So you had to be mentally stronger," Kulkarni said.
Kulkarni, who was appointed Mumbai coach when Praveen Amre decided to take a break after five years, said he was happy at the end of his first Ranji season. "It was quite good looking at the larger picture. We lost very badly this game," he said. "'[But] as far as the season is concerned there have been a lot of positives which will help Mumbai cricket in the future. The main thing is success of youngsters like Surya Kumar Yadav, Kaustubh Pawar, Balwinder Sandhu, Ankit Chavan and Kshemal Waingankar. This indicates Mumbai cricket is in good health."
Immediately after taking up the job Kulkarni found himself in a spot when Ajit Agarkar, Mumbai's most experienced and successful fast bowler, decided to abruptly return home after being dropped against Orissa. Agarkar found support from his Mumbai team-mate and India fast bowler Zaheer Khan, who told the media that Kulkarni and Mumbai chairman of selectors Milind Rege were pulling back Mumbai cricket.
Today, Kulkarni did not want to delve on the Agarkar incident and disagreed that the issue had any bearing on the rest of the season. "That was purely a cricketing situation," Kulkarni said. "That incident is over. Had we concentrated on that issue we wouldn't have come this far."
Pressed further if the issue had any impact on the morale of the dressing room, Kulkarni provided an example to back his thoughts. "If you look at the performance even in that match, Suryakumar Yadav scored a double-hundred. Kaustubh Pawar scored a century too."
Asked if he was bothered about his future, Kulkarni laughed at the questions. He said Mumbai being a champion team, everybody expected them to win the title. "That is not news. But if we lose it is big news."
Kulkarni was happy with the state of Mumbai's bench strength, and wanted to build on it. According to him, Mumbai's lesson from the season was to work harder and be more consistent. "A lot of the youngsters play a lot of Twenty20 and it is important that these guys adapt quickly to the four-day game and play consistently."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo