Harbhajan Singh has been going around saying he deserves to be back in the Test fold on account of having bowled extensively this past domestic season. In truth, the out-of-favour off-spinner played five games for Punjab, picking up 16 wickets with a best of 4/60 – in a losing cause against Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy semifinal. The 32-year-old is one match away from playing 100 Tests for India. If he gets that chance, Harbhajan will join an elite list of nine other Indians to have completed a century of games. His principal rival for the off-spinners' slot – R. Ashwin – is undergoing a crisis of form himself – and an assertive show with the ball in the Irani Cup match just may give the turbaned one a slender advantage. Ninety wickets from 16 matches versus the Autralians are also likely to tilt the scales in his favour, but that only if he does something special at the Wankhede Stadium over the next three days.
I chicken out. One look at the throbbing masses of humanity on the Borivali fast and second thoughts, and third and fourth, stream through my head. I have been told to cut the queue to the ticket counter since a first class pass allows for prioritized access.
My feeble attempts at nudging ahead are nipped in the bud, courtesy a rude elbow in the solar plexus, and I sink to the ground like a punctured balloon. In these moments of pain and embarrassment, it’s almost as if I’ve trespassed on a bad dream, someone else’s dream, with mocking masses watching on the entertainment. Gathering myself as a train clatters into the station - bodies crammed inside and dangling out - I’m accorded another glimpse into this shared, diurnal existence, one I’d rather not be part of. Taxi!
The objective is clear for either party. Mumbai, still in possession of a relatively new ball, seek an early denouement to Rest’s five remaining wickets. Rest hope the tail wags enough to propel them to a total above 400. Harbhajan Singh’s scalp arrives early, but it remains the hosts’ only success of the morning. Mumbai have only themselves to blame.
Their seamers are erratic (as exemplified by the consistently wide Shardul Thakur), the spinners are ineffective, the body language lax. Medium pacers Dhawal Kulkarni and Javed Khan, left-arm tweakers Vishal Dabholkar and Ankeet Chavan, and their go-to all-rounder Abhishek Nayar fail to arrest the copious flow of runs from the bats of Suresh Raina and Abhimanyu Mithun. One hundred-and-fifty seven come in 31 overs in the first session, taking the match, almost decisively, away from Mumbai.
RAINA-ING DOWN ON MUMBAI
Suresh Raina is in some form. The Ghaziabad left-hander tears apart Mumbai with a display of attacking batting. Raina is especially severe on Dabholkar and Chavan, whom he clobbers for a total of five sixes and as many fours. After M. Vijay’s century, it is the 26-year-old’s turn to stake a claim on a Test slot. But can too much be read into runs scored against a toothless bowling attack. Despite what Vijay had to say yesterday about Mumbai being a strong domestic team – and by that extension, possessed of an incisive attack – nothing that this motley collection of hurlers has to offer tests the batsmen. When Abhimanyu Mithun is helping himself to a third First Class fifty, that’s about all there is to say for the quality of bowling.
ALL FOR THE MASTER
Finally, crowds are milling about the stadium, trickling in like a dried tributary finding traces of life in early monsoon. Mumbai, after spending a day-and-a half on a leather hunt, are batting. The hosts lose wicketkeeper-batsman Aditya Tare in the fourth over, which implies that one wicket stands between Sachin Tendulkar and a stint in the middle. The stadium starts to fill up, waiting expectantly for Wasim Jaffer or Ajinkya Rahane to give up the ghost so their all-time favourite gets to bat. Neither obliges. Nor do Rest look particularly capable of dislodging them. But seven-odd overs from close Wasim Jaffer's half-hearted leave against S. Sreesanth results in the dreaded edge. Only to have Shardul Thakur come out as night watchman. The throng begins to dissipate, knowing well their cause is lost for the day. The last time Tendulkar batted at the Wankhede, in the Ranji Trophy final versus Saurashtra, he was run out cheaply by Jaffer. The maestro will hope no such sorry fate awaits him on Thursday, as would his doting followers.
Read more writings on Ranji Trophy and Irani Cup by Kunal Diwan.
2013 IRANI CUP: FULL COVERAGE