It’s 500 games and 41 titles, numbers that tell a story of Mumbai that never backs down and exudes confidence and dominance through every pore. © Joshua Veernathan

It’s 500 games and 41 titles, numbers that tell a story of Mumbai that never backs down and exudes confidence and dominance through every pore. © Joshua Veernathan

Mumbai are the greatest team in the Indian domestic circuit, bar none. No other team has come close to matching their success, no other has anything like Mumbai’s legacy. Playing for Mumbai brings prestige, but also challenges in the form of upholding the glory of the past and ensuring future generations imbibe the right values.

The expectations

Being aware of the team’s past is ingrained in every Mumbai player, even in those who dream of playing for the team someday. Aditya Tare, the captain, who made his first-class debut in 2009-10, says everyone who walks into the team is aware of its rich history.

“The standards are so high in Mumbai cricket that anything less than a Ranji Trophy is termed a failure,” the wicketkeeper-batsman tells Wisden India gravely. “The boys who come in are aware that they represent a team which has a great history.”

Tare has played 58 first-class matches so far, for 3478 runs at 38.21 with 204 catches and 16 stumpings. Being responsible for such a celebrated side with a storied legacy that a young team has to carry forward comes with its share of perils, such as the possibility that players might not be given enough chances due to the huge competition for spots. Tare, however, emphasises the importance of keeping faith in players, even when they might not have it themselves.

“If you see, Shreyas Iyer didn’t really do well in the first two-three games that he played and it was easy for anyone to say, ‘Boss he’s not good enough, you know we’ll try someone else’. But the coach then and the selectors backed his ability and now we know what sort of a player he is,” he points out. “The same with Akhil (Herwadkar) – you have to give younger players a long rope so that they feel secure and have enough time to prove their potential to everyone.

The Mumbai spirit:
“Anything other than the trophy would be a failure. It was paramount to win, it has been inscribed ever since we’ve been playing — that if you play for Mumbai, then the least you could do is to win the Ranji Trophy” – Amol Muzumdar.

“Someone representing Mumbai knows that there’s a lot at stake and a lot of legacies that have been left to be carried forward. That’s what helps people dig in deeper and get a lot of character from players coming forward” – Abhishek Nayar.

“That’s what I do as a leader, to make everyone feel secure about their place to try and do the best you can for the team and not worry so much about your place. It’s very easy for anyone to point out something to push them off the team, but it takes trust from the coaches, selectors and captains to back them, especially when they fail. You really back their attitude and their ability and it will eventually pay off good rewards which is what has happened. We backed certain players who’ve done well for the team and that’s what has kept this team going for a while now.”

The idea that the only things that counts is winning the Ranji Trophy is one shared by Mumbai captains new and old. Amol Muzumdar, who represented the side in over 100 first-class games and led them to the Ranji title in 2006-07 echoes the sentiment.

“Expectations were always to win the trophy,” says Muzumdar, the second highest run-getter in the Ranji Trophy. “Anything other than the trophy would be a failure. It was paramount to win, it has been inscribed ever since we’ve been playing — that if you play for Mumbai, then the least you could do is to win the Ranji Trophy. So the expectations were high, but along with that also came the pressure and the responsibility.”

Pressure and responsibility are words that seem to ring through the minds of every Mumbai player. The team, after all, has 41 titles with the Karnataka, second on the list, having just eight. The stakes are always high for Mumbai and according to Abhishek Nayar, the veteran allrounder, that motivates the team to always do better.

“The expectations are high and I feel that’s what brings the best out in this team,” holds Nayar. “For any team that had their back against the wall, I think someone representing Mumbai knows that there’s a lot at stake and a lot of legacies that have been left in the past to be carried forward. I think that’s what helps people dig in deeper and get a lot of character from players coming forward.

“I feel it’s always tricky – sometimes the pressure can get to you but also in certain situations, the pressure can get the best out of you.”

The legacy

It’s 500 games and 41 titles, numbers that tell a story of a team that never backs down and exudes confidence and dominance through every pore. Younger players are groomed by seniors, and as transitions occur and players move on, those younger players then become seniors and the process repeats itself. It’s a veritable assembly line of influence that has kept on chugging, while churning out both wins and talented players.

“Every season was a different kind of challenge,” explains Muzumdar. “In some seasons, the seniors were not available, so how do you motivate your youngsters to do the job? And in some seasons, how do you keep them on their toes by not letting the intensity drop in spite of having all the senior players?”

Younger players are groomed by seniors, and as transitions occur and players move on, those younger players then become seniors and the process repeats itself. © Getty Images

Younger players are groomed by seniors, and as transitions occur and players move on, those younger players then become seniors and the process repeats itself. © Getty Images

Wasim Jaffer, currently the highest run-getter with over 10,000 runs in Ranji Trophy, believes that it is the playing time gained through school and club cricket, including tournaments like the Kanga League which are world-famous, that prepares newcomers for the pressures and demands of representing Mumbai. Add to that a feast of coaches, which ensures there will be an ongoing supply line that provides talent whenever needed.

“We always had good coaches and any youngster who comes into the Mumbai squad has gone through the grind of playing club cricket, corporate cricket, which is always not easy,” says Jaffer, who moved to Vidarbha in 2015-16 after 19 years with Mumbai since his debut in 1996-97. “Even when they come to first-class cricket they are like more or less ready. It’s just about them clicking at that level.”

Also read: 500 reasons to celebrate khadoos Mumbai

The present

For the current crop of players, it took a lot of work to get settled into a winning combination considering the gaps that were left by outgoing players, and Tare is honest about the challenges that Mumbai faced a few years ago.

“If you see in the past five seasons, the team has lost a lot of important players,” he points out. “In the 2012-13 season when we won the title, Ajit Agarkar was the captain and the next year, he retired. Sachin Tendulkar was part of that final and after that season, he’s gone. Wasim Jaffer was part of it and he was gone. Zaheer Khan, Ramesh Powar also left, so suddenly we had four-five big players who were legends of Mumbai cricket, and few of them were legends of Indian cricket, and they had retired or moved on to other states.

“We did lose important players and we were into a transition phase where younger boys were coming into the team and they had to fill in big boots. Now we’ve played together for two-three seasons and gained experience as a team. We’ve maintained the continuity of the same players – we’ve backed certain players and that has given us the rewards.”

“It was important that we didn’t lose the 500th Ranji match on the last day, and the boys made sure we stuck in there and salvaged a draw and got that one point which is going to be crucial. If we stick together in the next two games and we pull out our A-game, I think we’ll be in a good position to qualify for the knockouts. And from there on, it’s a different ball-game. We’re a different team in the knockouts” – Aditya Tare.

Muzumdar has noticed the same thing about the current Mumbai side.

“I think they’ve been exceptional,” he says. “They are a talented bunch of guys. They have stuck with each other for the last three-four years. All of them know how to deal with first-class cricket and what are the standards to maintain while playing first-class cricket. They know it inside-out. Somebody like Surya Kumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer, Siddesh Lad, Tare, Nayar – all these guys have played for a long time now.”

Jaffer agrees, and points out that despite being a young side they’ve managed to hold their heads high.

“The last season (2016-17) they lost the final, which I believe they could have won,” he offers. “And the season before that they won the Ranji trophy. So with a young side, they could achieve a lot. It was amazing. There were not many senior players around, they were a young team and most of them put their hands up, Shreyas Iyer got like some 1300 runs, Aditya Tare being a very young captain, he led the team well. Most of them played their part and it was commendable with that team.”

The future

It hasn’t been the best of starts for Mumbai in the 2017-18 season with 11 points from four games and only one outright win against Odisha. Mumbai were blown back by Baroda’s performance over the first three days and it was only a stubborn Lad, supported by Rahane and Nayar, who saved Mumbai the ignominy of losing their landmark 500th game.

Tare doesn’t mince words about his team’s dismal performance in the landmark game.

“Credit to Baroda, they batted well, they were quite determined and disciplined in their batting. Once they put on 500-plus, we knew that we were going to have a big task saving this game,” he concedes. “It was important that we didn’t lose the 500th Ranji match on the last day, and the boys made sure we stuck in there and salvaged a draw and got that one point which is going to be crucial.”

Nayar, though, wasn’t too worried about the showing against Baroda, and held that it was a learning experience for most of the players which they could carry forward into the remaining league games against Andhra and Tripura.

"The mindset of a Mumbai player has always been positive, to dominate and if we get an inch, we try and pull (ahead) - that's the attitude of a Mumbai cricketer,” said Abhishek Nayar. © BCCI

“The mindset of a Mumbai player has always been positive, to dominate and if we get an inch, we try and pull (ahead) – that’s the attitude of a Mumbai cricketer,” said Abhishek Nayar. © BCCI

“I feel on the last day, we showed our character and of course we needed that one point going forward to still keep us in the run to get into the knockouts,” reflects Nayar. “I think just digging in and trying to save this game showed a lot of character. I think we got a lot of tips from this game and looking forward, everyone will be in a good space knowing that we didn’t let go of things even though things were going really tough. We dug in deep and we stood there as a team, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who will be relieved that even having our backs against the wall, we could still save the game.”

Tare also is extremely confident in the team’s ability to dust themselves off after the nerve-wracking draw and forge ahead.

“I believe we’ve got a very strong squad,” he reiterates. “We’ve got experienced players and talented youngsters, and I think the quality in the squad is phenomenal. If we stick together in the next two games and we pull out our A-game, I think we’ll be in a good position to qualify for the knockouts. And from there on, it’s a different ball-game. We’re a different team in the knockouts.”

Mumbai had been put through the embarrassment of being bowled out for 171 on the first day of the game at the Wankhede Stadium, but Nayar points to the spirit of the side as one of the reasons they pulled through without losing.

“Eventually it’s a game of cricket – when you go out there and you play, you’re obviously playing for the pride of your team but you’re also playing for your own pride and you’re also playing for the happiness of the support staff and other team members who are there fighting it out with you,” says Nayar.

“I know it’s a clichéd answer, but the mindset of a Mumbai player has always been positive, to dominate and if we get an inch, we try and pull (ahead) – that’s the attitude of a Mumbai cricketer.”

The end of November and the league phase of the Ranji Trophy will now determine if this season can still be on track to be considered a success, as per Mumbai’s definition of the term.