For a majority of first-class teams in India, qualifying for the Ranji Trophy knockouts amounts to pats on the back, and a feeling of a job well done. But for Mumbai, reaching the knockouts is only the beginning. Anything short of a win is considered a failure.
A team that has won the Ranji Trophy 41 times, Mumbai has appeared to be in the doldrums in the last few years. They last won a title in 2015-16 and failed to qualify for the knockouts in the last two seasons.
In the aftermath, heads started to roll and new officials took charge so that the status quo was maintained and pride gets restored.
First major change was the appointment of Salil Ankola as chairman of the selection committee. Ankola, who had been away from cricket for nearly 20 years, began watching Mumbai cricket seriously a few years ago and once he was appointed to the job, some things became obvious.
“There was talent, but after watching closely in 2020, I felt that camaraderie was missing,” Ankola told News 18 CricketNext. “What was there in the teams of the 1990s. Sachin [Tendulkar], Ravi [Shastri], and Sanjay [Manjrekar], there was no senior-junior business. As juniors, we knew our limits. But we used to have a couple of beers together, we used to go out together, we used to gel together. There was no Ravi sir or Sanjay sir.”
When Amol Muzumdar was appointed as coach in June 2021, Ankola had a serious chat with Mumbai’s modern-day legend.
“Because Mumbai had not qualified as much as they should have for the knockouts, there was talk that something needed to be done. I told Amol we need to see new blood, and bonding of players,” recalls Ankola. “When one person does well, the whole team should feel good. This is what we worked on.”
In June 2021 the team was sent to Oman for a pre-season preparatory tour.
“This season we thought we should push from the word go. Not that we would wait for 15 days before the competition to start our campaign. The more you play as a team, the closer you get. One match is worth 15 days of practice, in bringing a team together,” says Ankola. “In theory it is simple, but it can be difficult to implement. Anand Yalvigi, Sachin spoke to the boys. The seniors of yesteryears showed how much Mumbai pride meant and how much this team winning still meant to them.”
But it did not stop here. Ankola stepped in at key moments to speak to different players in the team. “I had a word with Yashasvi [Jaiswal] and told him I had a lot of expectations of him, but it was up to him to live up to it,” says Ankola. “He scored a 100 in 229 balls. That was not something we have seen from him before. He got off the mark in the 54th ball he faced (in the semifinal against Uttar Pradesh). This shows he is eager to learn. The willingness to learn had come into the side.”
Another player who has impressed is Shams Mulani, the allrounder, who leads the wicket table with 37 scalps.
“With, Shams, from Ranji Trophy we asked him to play Under-25. When I was playing, if I was established in Ranji and someone asked me to play Under-25, I probably would not,” admits Ankola. “But he was keen to play. ‘I was waiting for you to ask, but if you had not I would have called you’ Mulani had said. That’s pride, wanting to play, wanting to win.”
Not only did Mulani go and play in the Under-25 tournament, but he was also a key figure in Mumbai’s success, turning around a key match against Karnataka.
In a long season, you need different players to step up at key moments. And this is exactly what has happened for Mumbai.
“We’ve got a new find in Suved Parkar. A senior like Aditya Tare went out, but Hardik Tamore stepped in and passed the test with flying colours. The way he batted, the way he kept. Dhanush Kotian, and Mohit Awasthi, they’ve all done well. Dhaval Kulkarni was told from the first day that he is in charge of bowling. He’s always at mid-off or mid-on helping the bowlers. He is a quiet guy, but he has challenged himself and taken the responsibility.”
A major problem that Mumbai had in the recent past was outside interference in squad and team selection. Ankola laughs when asked about this. “You must have heard when the Iron Man actor Robert Downey Junior said once: ‘listen, smile, agree and do whatever the ** you want to do anyway’. That’s my motto. For Amol and I, it’s only the team that matters,” says Ankola.
“Outside influences are not only from the MCA, from politicians, from others … but who knows cricket better than cricketers? We’ve won Ranji Trophy … If you listen to others and the team doesn’t do well, you’re going to get blamed. Might as well do your thing and if things go wrong anyway then take the blame. Getting into the Mumbai team should be tough, but once you come in because you’re deserving, you should be backed.”
When you put it to Ankola that the team is back on track, and perhaps the result in the final doesn’t matter as good practices have been put in place, he interrupts, stopping you immediately.
“Of course, it matters. We’re not here to participate. You’ve come this far, you must finish the deal and win,” says Ankola. “It is called Mumbai Cricket Association, not Mumbai Carom Association or Mumbai Chess Association. As long as cricket is played well, everything is fine.”
For the moment, it does appear that all is well with Mumbai cricket.
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