Coach change – check. Bowling coach change – check. Captain change – check. Trainer change – check. Physiotherapist change – check.
Chaos is a word Mumbai cricket is familiar with, albeit in a positive sense. The Mumbai teams of the yore used to create chaos in the opposition camps with their bloody-minded, dominating cricket. Things, however, have changed in the last few years, and Mumbai cricket finds itself at the other end of the spectrum in the build-up to the 2018-19 season.
Already recuperating from a disastrous 2017-18 season – disastrous by Mumbai standards, given the adage that anything apart from Ranji Trophy title is a failure – where they went trophyless, their head coach Sameer Dhige left citing personal reasons after just one season in charge, bowling coach Omkar Salvi resigned and so did the trainer and physio. Former India pacer Balwinder Sandhu resigned from the MCA Cricket Improvement Committee. Senior player and mentor Abhishek Nayar left for Puducherry. The Ajit Agarkar-led selection committee was criticised for allegedly not watching local matches. The coach selection was delayed and so was the off-season training camp. Players and staff’s salaries were delayed due to Associations’ financial issues.
After much deliberation, former Mumbai wicket-keeper batsman Vinayak Samant was appointed as the head coach. Former Mumbai all-rounder Amit Dani was named the assistant coach. Then came the leadership change as Aditya Tare, who led the team for three seasons, was informed that selectors were looking for someone else in the leadership role. Ajinkya Rahane was named the captain for Vijay Hazare Trophy, Shreyas Iyer led the side in his absence due to national duties while Dhawal Kulkarni took over the reins in absence of Iyer during his ‘A’ team commitments.
Amidst all this, the Mumbai team shut itself from the outside world and brought some calm by lifting the Vijay Hazare Trophy after 12 years, going unbeaten throughout the tournament.
The win has set the tone for the season, now it’s about carrying forward the momentum.
“We have started off well, on the front foot by winning the Vijay Hazare trophy it’s now about transferring this confidence and momentum into four-day cricket,” Tare tells Firstpost.
“We’ve spent good five-six weeks together in the league phase in Bangalore. When the team is winning, the confidence is pretty high, if we win first few games, that momentum will be much stronger. Once that momentum and belief get stronger, I think we are always a tough side to beat.”
Confidence is just one aspect. A step up in batting is the antidote they desperately need. Over the years, scoreboard pressure has been a lethal weapon in Mumbai’s armoury but it seems to have gone missing.
In the last two seasons, Mumbai, as a team, haven’t been in the top 10 of batting averages list. They were 12th in 2016-17 with an average of 31.39 and 13th in 2017-18 with 34.83. Only one player – Siddesh Lad (8th with 652 runs) – made it to the top 10 run-getters in 2017-18, in 2016-17, no one was even in top 15 of the run-scorers list. Given that Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Prithvi Shaw and Shreyas Iyer’s availability might be scant because of national and ‘A’ team commitments respectively, it’s time for the senior players like Aditya Tare (Average of 23.7 last season), Suryakumar Yadav (Avg 38.33 last season) and Akhil Herwadkar( Avg 32 last season) to up the ante which can automatically take the ‘crisis’ away from crisis-man Siddhesh Lad. These are also important times for Tare and Yadav for their personal careers as time is running out.
Samant is also looking at runs from the lower-order.
“I am working more on improving the tail-enders’ batting skills,” Samant told Firstpost. “Bowlers like Tushar Deshpande, Vijay Gohil, Karsh Kothari, they have to contribute with the bat as well. Obviously, the top order is very important but the lower-order – 8,9,10,11 – they have to put in efforts to score at least 70-100 runs.”
In the bowling department, injuries, national call-ups and lack of variety in spin consistently kept poking Mumbai in their wounds. Last season, five bowlers were handed debuts – Minad Manjrekar, Shivam Dubey, Akash Parkar, Shivam Malhotra and Karsh Kothari – which meant that Mumbai were left with inexperience at crucial stages.
“Last year we had a lot of newcomers, a lot of players who have played their first season,” Tare explains. “A lot of forced changes and injuries so those were the challenges we faced as a team. In the quarters we had four bowlers who were playing their first season, except for Dhawal. If you really don’t a have a strong experienced bowling unit, it’s difficult to win Ranji Trophies.”
The performance of the bowling unit in Vijay Hazare has breathed positivity. The emergence of left-arm spinner Shams Mulani, all-rounder Shivam Dubey and re-emergence of pacer Tushar Deshpande, who impressed with 17 wickets at an average of 22 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and ramped up good pace, has got everyone excited. In absence of Shardul Thakur, the bowling unit still lacks experience and the real challenge for Samant and Kulkarni, who is pace spearhead and a guide, will be to get the best out of the resources they have at their disposal.
The thought process ought to enable players to cope up with the absence of senior personnel, and the latter’s absence shouldn’t be an excuse anymore.
For Samant, the biggest worry is altogether different though.
“Fielding is a big worry for Mumbai and it might cost us in the future, I am really worried about our fielding standard,” Samant says. “The approach and the commitment in the fielding of the other teams are too high because they have nothing to lose. But we have IPL players, established Ranji Trophy players who want to play the whole season, so sometimes it happens that they try to keep themselves away from injuries, but it shouldn’t cost the team. So am very scared. We have to improve and for that, we need a lot of fitness. Unfortunately, this year, I started late so haven’t got much chance to concentrate on fitness. In a four-day game, we need good slip fielders, short-leg, silly point fielders, so we have to practice that and see who fits the best in those positions and work on it.”
With the arrival of a new coach comes new methods. Samant is a firm believer of ‘process is more important than the outcome’ theory. The arrival of T20 has changed approaches and methods in longer formats as well. Adopting a fearless approach has had its pros and cons. Mumbai have experienced both which brings out the need for balance. For Samant, winning sessions is the goal heading into the season.
“It is very important to be patient because this is a game of sessions. In a day, you have to win sessions. And for that, you have to go hour by hour,” Samant says.
While Samant goes about his business, one crucial point that should make way into his process diary is the stability. There has been a lot of changes in the past, some forced other unforced. Consistency in team selection and batting order is paramount.
Not just on the field, stability off the field is important too, for a longer run. It’s not just about the present, the coach needs to plan for the future too. Mumbai have had four different coaches in last five years which can have an impact on the unit.
“When a new coach comes in, he needs time to settle down. He needs time to know the team and players so you cannot really try and justify his appointment in one year,” says Tare. “He needs time to stabilise himself and the team. So to say for the players. They need time to settle down with the coach, to understand him and vice versa. If you have a coach changing in every one or two years, it’s difficult for the entire team. It’s a give and take. It’s rare, don’t think it’s happened much in the past where you’ve had a new coach every one or two years. It shouldn’t happen and hopefully, things will change going forward.”
There is a mix of experience and youth in this squad and under the guidance of new captain and coach, it needs to fire in unison. Little luck with injuries would be of massive help. Kulkarni will lead the squad in absence of full-time captain Iyer who will be away on national duty. 16-year-old batsman Yashasvi Jaiswal has been called up as a replacement of Iyer in the squad for the first match against Railways. Two years without a Ranji title is a long time for Mumbai cricket. It will be tough with strong teams in defending champions Vidarbha, Karnataka, Gujarat and Saurashtra present in the group. But they have this preternatural ability to bounce back strongly after a difficult season which breathes positivity and hope heading into the Ranji season.
Amidst all the changes, they need to bring back the old habit of winning as a constant.
Squad: Dhawal Kulkarni (C) ,Siddhesh Lad, Jay Bista, Surya Kumar Yadav, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Ashay Sardesai, Aditya Tare, Eknath Kerkar, Shivam Dube, Akash Parkar, Karsh Kothari, Shams Mulani, Akhil Herwadkar, Tushar Deshpande and Royston Dias.