The culture, ethos and spirit of Mumbai cricket has always been singular, forward-thinking and an example to other states in India. As they gear up for their 500th Ranji Trophy match, the allrounder Abhishek Nayar turns his gaze to the current Mumbai dressing room, bubbling with youth and flamboyance, young men who want to add their own chapter into the city's rich cricketing history.
Tujhya dolyat disala pahije tu Mumbai la khelto" (Mumbai should be seen in your eyes. It should reflect in your eyes that you play for Mumbai)
Amol Muzumdar opened my eyes straight away. Amol was the epitome of the khadoos school of cricket Mumbai has been famous for for decades. When I heard that for the first time I did not understand what he was saying.
Then I thought it bloody means I have to bring that spirit to the game. I have to make that difference when everyone feels nothing is happening. Amol, Nilesh [Nilesh Kulkarni], Sai [Sairaj Bahutule], Ramesh Powar - all these guys used to just kill the domestic circuit. During the maidan days we heard tales about how sometimes Nilesh was like Courtney Walsh was bowling left-arm spin and getting that kind of bounce. How Sai and co. would pack off Saurashtra in three days. It was unreal to watch them destroy the opposition in tandem.
These guys would walk in to the game with an attitude that was ruthless. "Bhai, char din ka match hain. Chautha din ko lunch pe biryani kha ke ghar jaana hai (It is a four-day match. By lunch on the fourth day, we should finish the game, have biryani, and go home.)" And all you heard in the dressing room was: we have to win the Ranji Trophy. Not winning the next match or something. It was always about winning the tournament.
For youngsters like me and others of my batch we just had blind faith in what seniors like Amol and Nilesh would say and do. We were just in awe of these guys. We youngsters would talk about how Amol would stand at silly point without a helmet or how Nilesh could consistently hit the handle of the bat with his left-arm spin. We just wanted to live up to their expectations and hopefully fulfill ours.
If you look at the Mumbai dressing room now it is full of youngsters. When I entered the dressing room I was sharing it with guys who were used to winning, dominating the domestic circuit. It was about how I could do something to play the next match, how I can survive in the dressing room.
The pressure was not just from the seniors but also the pressure of just doing well. If you did not win it outright then the feeling was you had not had the best game. Winning outright, at least at the Wankhede, running through an opponent was the norm.
These guys would walk in to the game with an attitude that was ruthless. "Bhai, char din ka match hain. Chautha din ko lunch pe biryani kha ke ghar jaana hai (It is a four-day match. By lunch on the fourth day, we should finish the game, have biryani, and go home.)"
Acceptance in a dressing room is always important and earning respect of your teammates in Mumbai is very difficult. My first year was truly baptism by fire, but it hardened me and has taken me where I am today. My first year was not the best. I had got three consecutive ducks so I was not expecting to win any friends. Two of the ducks in the same match as a nightwatchman, in our final league match against Maharashtra, which they won outright. By the second year Pravin sir [Pravin Amre] had taken over as the coach and he supported me.
But the turning point for came when Ajit Agarkar gave a glowing compliment having seen me play against Rajasthan at Wankhede. I had scored an attractive 86 and picked up five wickets in the match. Ajit liked what he saw of me and told Milind Rege sir (selector) that "this guy is a very good player. Where was he all this time?"
We won that season and Amol, who was the captain, started believing in me and told me that my attitude would take me a long way and I had played a role in Mumbai winning the title. Guys like Amol and Nilesh actually brought the best out of me. I got that drive to perform because I was asked difficult questions by my seniors. It taught me what it takes to play for Mumbai and perform and rub shoulders with the best.
Today I have won the Ranji Trophy five times. I know I now belong. It took years of toil. I am now a senior in the Mumbai dressing room, which is completely different to the ones I was part of previously.
I was overawed by my seniors, like I said, but today's youngsters, as much as they respect me, are not overburdened by the legacy created by hundreds of Mumbai players in the past. A Prithvi Shaw can easily crack a joke and be cool with it. In our last match, in Odisha, Prithvi was my roommate. Usually it is Shreyas [Shreyas Iyer], but he was away playing the New Zealand T20 series. So one of the nights Prithvi, feeling cold, moved from his single bed into my bed. Another night I was forced to go and sleep on his bed since I was pushed halfway out of my bed.
After so many years of playing I have developed a sort of limp in my walk. Prithvi is not shy to point it out and joke, "Arre Nayar bhai, time ho gaya aap ka (Your time is up)." It is a different breed now.
When I shared a room with Nilesh during my younger days, I remember how it was left spic and span. I would not even touch the remote. Chup-chaap (quietly) I used to sit. Once Amol picked me up from the DY Patil Stadium and took me to the Mumbai Cricket Association office and I was telling the town about it for the rest of the day.
But now that hero worship is not there. They do want to play for the pride of Mumbai, but the youngsters today want to kind of set their own legacy. They want to create a name, brand, destiny. A Shreyas Iyer, a Siddhesh Lad, a Shardul Thakur - they do want to listen what Amol, Nilesh and others did in the past, but they want to win trophies for Mumbai, score 1000 runs in a season, they want to have their names in the record books. That is what this era believes in. That is brilliant and I encourage such a mindset.
It does scare me sometimes, the freedom with which they play. A lot of times I heard them saying "Abhishek da, tadi do na jaise aap dete the. Ghuamao na. Maro na. (Hit out)" I have to laugh out. I have to tell them that I have done what you are doing, but someone has to oversee, guide and arrest them from getting carried away.
Times might be changing, but one thing I am confident about is some of these young men will in their own flamboyant way take Mumbai cricket forward. It is a good bunch of players with different talents. There is Akhil Herwadkar, a hardworking, khadoos player who will do everything for the team, a contrast to the flair and sort of arrogance of Shreyas and Prithvi; there is Siddhesh Lad, slowly becoming a crisis man; there is Aditya Tare, the captain, a perfect role model, who will give youngsters the space, but can bring back the old school khadoos attitude to reign them in.
My message to the young lot is simple: respect the game and respect your talent. A lot of these guys in the Mumbai team are so talented, but at times they take it for granted. In the past an Amol Muzumdar or a Nilesh Kulkarni optimised his talent to the hilt. Hard work, work ethic, the attitude they walked into the ground with, you could never question them ever.
That is what I tell these youngsters: never take this team and what is done in the past for granted. Because when you wear the Mumbai Lions on your chest there is more to it than just going there and showing off that you can score a hundred, but that double or triple that the team requires. You do what the team needs. And Mumbai always want to win.