Most cricket pundits would have predicted the way the Ranji Trophy final between Mumbai and Saurashtra would go. Mumbai have won the trophy 40 times now. It's a record that doesn't look likely to ever be broken.
Saurashtra, on the other hand, played their first ever Ranji Trophy final. It's been a great season for them. They have followed the example set by Rajasthan by coming past a lot of strong teams to make it to the final against great odds.
As first time finalists, Saurashtra would have hoped for a very positive start to the match; to begin on the right foot and gain early momentum. After having been put in to bat they would have hoped for a modest first-innings total - something close to 400 at least - to have had a chance to put pressure on Mumbai . What actually happened was that the Mumbai bowlers faced no resistance and were never made to toil.
While playing a team like Mumbai, it's absolutely vital that you show no mental weakness. With their experience and ability a team like Mumbai can quickly smell weakness and exploit it. Saurashtra looked very shaky mentally and Mumbai didn't waste any time going for the kill. When you play a stronger opponent it's imperative that you maintain a body language that says you are prepared to do whatever it takes to give off your best. It's vital not to get intimidated. But unfortunately Saurashtra looked very intimidated indeed.
For Saurashtra cricket, it would have meant a great deal if they had shown big heart. Losing against a strong opponent is fine. What matters is how you play the game. This matters because when you don't show character and give in meekly, it doesn't do your confidence much good. Other teams also watch and learn that as a unit you are vulnerable. When you play competitive sport, every day has to be viewed as an opportunity to improve. When constant and gradual improvement is the goal you tend to think less about match results etc, what you focus on is to learn and grow. This gives you the space and freedom to play your natural game and express yourself without restraint.
This holds true for individuals as well as teams. By showing the will to fight no matter who they play against, Saurashtra could have sent a strong message to the other teams in the country. Nevertheless, what they have achieved this season is nothing short of amazing and they should get due credit for their effort.
What made a great difference to Saurashtra is also the absence of their key players Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja who were on national duty. Mumbai too missed the services of Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma but they still had a very strong team which wasan ideal blend of youth and experience. And as everyone knows, when pressure increases, the experienced players have to step up like they did for Mumbai.
Sadly, Saurashtra were very limited in the experience department, especially in their batting. Shitanshu Kotak did the best he could in the first innings but the team never showed then keenness to fight nor the application needed to play out the difficult times. Be as it may, they now know what they are capable of achieving and also where they need to improve. Now they have the experience of having played in a Ranji Trophy final which is bound to help the next time they get to the last stage.
It's interesting to see the trend that has developed in recent years in Indian domestic cricket. Teams that earlier would have been happy staying mid table are now seen beating stronger opponents and making the knock-out stages very consistently. In the recent past Rajasthan - which had never won the Ranji Trophy - were the winners for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. . Jharkhand have been winners of the Vijay Hazare Trophy in 2010-11 and the finalists that year were Gujarat. A season before that Maharashtra and Hyderabad played the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in which Maharashtra were victorious. And this season, Services made it to the semi-finals before eventually losing to Mumbai. Saurashtra made it to the finals for the first time ever after beating Punjab in the Semis. This clearly shows that more teams now, have the self belief and the desire to combat stronger teams. This is a good sign for Indian cricket as it shows that the field as a whole is getting better and that no team can just win on reputation as used to be the case in the past.
Mumbai have made a magnificent comeback. They have had a very quiet and subdued last couple of years and by the looks of it they didn't like being left out of the action. Not only has Mumbai won the Ranji Trophy yet again but, they have also won the Under-25 and Vijay Merchant Under-16 titles and are currently in the finals of the Cooch Bihar U-19 competition. Whatever the result of this ongoing final, it's been a fabulous year for Mumbai cricket.
What Saurashtra need to realise is that they lost to Mumbai not because they were less skilful but because Mumbai showed more hunger and the will to win was very strong. With this in mind, it will pay great dividends if Saurashtra work in building teamwork and confidence and work also on the mental aspects of the game. Though Saurashtra lost, they should feel proud of what they have achieved.
All in all, the state of domestic cricket looks good with more and more different teams continuing to make it to the knockout stages. Stronger teams that in the past have been domestic dadas cannot take anything for granted anymore and going forward, this makes the cricket very interesting.