These are sad days for Mumbai cricket. Invincibility gone, they are battling for pride in Ranji Trophy. If humiliation against Jammu & Kashmir was not enough, a first innings defeat in over 50 years greeted them in Chennai last week. Considering their 40th title came two seasons ago, the fall has been drastic. Curiously, this coincides with something that makes the decline a contrasting study in comparison.
After a long time, two Mumbai batsmen are in the Indian XI. Post Sachin Tendulkar, Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma are regulars in the longer version. In 50 overs, at the moment, they appear India’s best opening options for the World Cup. Tendulkar had bowlers Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan in the team in the later stages of his career, but in a way, didn’t have a Mumbaikar at the other end. Before Rohit and Rahane, Wasim Jaffer was the last of their batsmen to play a Test (2008). Barring Tendulkar, the last Mumbai batsmen in a World Cup were Sanjay Manjrekar and Vinod Kambli (1996).
Rohit and Rahane hardly share similarities. A year younger at 26, Rahane came up the hard way, securing his place in both formats under trying circumstances. His presence promises solidity apart from runs and in many ways, he’s the quintessential Mumbai batsman, who values his wicket more than money. Rohit is the rare kind, who can surpass a series of lows with something special. Despite being on and off since ODI debut in 2007, he’s permanent in this format. Some superlative and monumental efforts at home stand out, but of late he’s been more reliable than Shikhar Dhawan abroad.
“Having grown up watching some of our giants, Ajinkya resembles the old school. In formative years, he played on difficult tracks Kanga League offered those days. It tightened up his game and like all typical Mumbai batsmen, he doesn’t give his wicket away. Cricket’s changed, but he’s remembered lessons that taught to aim at 150 after 100, 200 after that and so on. They’re never satisfied and there’s no full stop. You don’t see that kind any more,” Jaffer told TNIE.
An incident from Rohit’s first Ranji Trophy match in 2006 and his mode of dismissal in last year’s Edgbaston Test against Moeen Ali perhaps explain what bugs him. On both occasions, he was trying to hit the off-spinner over mid-off at a critical stage of the innings, after having worked hard to settle down. That said, he’s a different force in ODIs and before missing two matches in the tri-series with injury, Rohit promised again with a century against Australia that showed traits he’s accused of missing.
“He gives the impression he’s given it away. Inside, he doesn’t want that,” said Amol Muzumdar, Mumbai captain in that Ranji game. “He’s matured but you can’t say for sure that century will be a turning point. Stylish, languid and elegant, he’s like Mark Waugh or David Gower. Although there’s a long way to go in Tests, he seems to have cracked the ODI code and played good knocks away from home. But he can be a genius who also disappoints. Compared to Rahane, who grew up with emphasis on defence and tight technique, Rohit’s a different case study,” added the former batsman.
In discussions on what separates Rohit, the extra second he manages due to an ability to read the length early is most talked about. Muzumdar noticed something else when he first saw him. “The time he has to play shots stood out. There was also an air of confidence that he carried. After Venkatesh Prasad told me about him, my first impression when I saw him was here’s a confident lad. Obviously he needed a bit of talking to about the demands that come with playing for Mumbai. What you see now is a different player. He will be confident after that hundred and batsmen rely only on that. No matter scratchy or magnificent, it’s only runs in the previous game that matters.”
With Dhawan not even flattering to deceive, odds for Rahane and Rohit opening are rising. Given that one is originally a middle-order man and the other an opener who was forced to bat deeper, it’s a queer mix. “Barring the last few years, Ajinkya has always opened. He has the technique, mindset and shots to play according to the situation. Comfortable against the new and old ball, he can bat anywhere. It’s an adjustment not many can make. As for Rohit, he has to show he’s developed the thought process. He’s still young and has tightened up his game in the last year or so. Looking hungry as well,” felt Jaffer.
What they do in Ranji Trophy will come under closer observation in due course. Before that, Mumbai can draw encouragement from the fact that even in times of trouble, they are not short on role models of their own.