Before I get down to the nuts and bolts, let me begin by painting a worrisome picture of what awaits: a first trip on the (in)famous Mumbai local, all the way from Churchgate to Borivali, an unforgettable end to end ordeal - or so I am told. Advice is freely forthcoming: Throw your kerchief on a seat; don't take the train that goes to Virar because you'll never be able to disembark; keep your wallet safe; don't make eye-contact with anybody; and so on and so forth. I am tremulous with perverse anticipation even before I have begun the walk to the station. I mean come on. This is a transit that is survived by millions on a daily basis. How bad can it be? Then again, I am not quite touched, yet, by Mumbai's brand of badassery; will that be held (bad choice of word on a crowded rail) against me? You'll know tomorrow.
Back to the cricket. Sachin Tendulkar aside, Rest of India captain Virender Sehwag is arguably the biggest attraction at this Irani Trophy. The dashing opener's exclusion on the first morning ensures that the crowds stay away. A distressed stomach is the reason cited for Sehwag ruling himself out of what is likely to be his only match practice ahead of the Australia Tests. With Gautam Gambhir not in great form either, India - if indeed they choose the experienced duo to open against the Aussies - will have two men not at the top of their game facing up to a battery of young tearaways. There are rumblings that while Sehwag is expected to be a first choice for at least the Chennai Test, Gambhir may be shelved in favour of Ajinkya Rahane or M Vijay, whose attacking hundred on the opening day will have boosted his chances of making the eleven at his homeground Chepauk.
Still on Vijay. The Tamil Nadu batsman has had a poor Ranji season, averaging about 17 in eight innings, not once crossing 50. Punjab opener Jiwanjot Singh certainly had a stronger claim to making the Rest side. Playing his debut season, Jiwanjot was the highest accumulator in the domestic competition, during which he amassed five centuries. Nothing that Vijay did early in his innings on Wednesday vindicated this show of faith in him. The Chennai batsman fished outside off, played and missed and was even dismissed off a no-ball later in his knock. But Vijay battled on, turning from sufferer to aggressor to compile his 11th first class hundred. A decent innings by Ajinkya Rahane will really have Sehwag and Gambhir quivering over their immediate future.
After sending them in, Mumbai's desperation to dislodge Rest's openers is understandable. Their methods are not. Success proves elusive and at the first drinks break, the great Sachin Tendulkar is observed initiating a huddle, standing at its centre as ten pairs of attentive eyes and ears follow his every move. Mumbai's seamers - with the exception of Dhawal Kulkarni - are guilty of bowling too wide and not making the batsmen play enough on a pitch that has something in it in the first hour of play. It's not known precisely what the maestro has to say to his teammates. It is known, however, that all the lecturing scarcely affects the radar of the home bowlers, and the first wicket -when it arrives - takes a rank poor shot off an equally sorry
Shardul Thakur stays true to his template. He begins with a series of full-length balls and full-tosses, breaking the chain only to dish out wide half-trackers. Thakur concedes 25 runs and five boundaries in his first two overs, as Vijay and the left-handed Shikhar Dhawan wade into him. But it is Thakur's stock ball - an unpardonable wide - that gets Mumbai the breakthrough. A few overs after lunch, Dhawan chops an offering way outside off on to the stumps. The 21-year-old Thakur can also claim to have had the measure of Vijay. The batsman slashes him hard to the wicket-keeper. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, Thakur has overstepped by a mile, and Vijay lives to see another day, perhaps play another Test match too.
Abhishek Nayar has been Mumbai's go-to bowler all year past. Each time the team has required a wicket, the all-rounder has obliged. On Wednesday too, as Mumbai's decision to field first appears to have backfired, Nayar gets rid of a struggling Manoj Tiwary, albeit through a dubious umpiring decision. Tiwary moves far across to a full length delivery, is struck in line with off, and scampers off for a leg-bye. It's only once Tiwary is safely home at the non-striker's end that the umpire raises the fatal finger. Tiwary takes another few minutes to remove himself from the field, and indicates the ball may have grazed his glove before contacting the pads. Nayar, however, is not finished. Early in the last session, he forces a inswinger through the well-set Vijay's defence and then hounds new man Suresh Raina relentlessly for a couple of overs. Close to a million dollars in the IPL auction does give one loads of confidence.
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