This appeared in the issue of Time Out Mumbai dated December 2-15, again credited to Haroun Kamal.
When we last spoke to Sairaj Bahutule, then Mumbai’s captain, the Ranji Trophy semifinals were close at hand and the mood was optimistic. The team was unbeaten, batsmen were in good form, and they were tipped to win, as Mumbai are expected to every year. Dominance, form, history. How much do they really guarantee? Punjab snuck past them.
A few things changed since then. Bahutule left for Maharashtra. Chandrakant Pandit, the coach, just plain left. The newspapers went to town. The subject is not up for discussion, Bahutule says now, there’s no need for controversy. So we talk about Mumbai’s last season, its history, and the future.
“In seven league games we played exceptional cricket,” he says about the campaign. “I think it’s just one of those things. But the guys had applied themselves and I think it’s one of those years when some things are not meant to be.”
Railways, a group of players unfamiliar with luxury, eventually won the title. In the days that followed, they said that their big incentive was a better life. So what incentive did Mumbai need to achieve success? “Mumbai cricket has started the gradation system, which is very good,” Bahutule says. “I’m sure it’ll boost the players’ morale. A lot of talented players are still there and I’m sure they’re going to push themselves and get into winning ways. It’s just that we didn’t win last year. Otherwise out of three years we won two. So it’s not a bad record at all.”
One of these young guys, he says, is Vinit Indulkar. At 20, he scored nearly 500 runs last season, his first one. “He did very well in the league stage, and didn’t get runs in the semis, but obviously that’s just one odd game. He’s a steady guy, a level-headed fellow, works very hard, is focused on what he wants to do. He’s got a good future.” Good enough to wear blue? “I think so. I believe he will.”
Mumbai no longer produces stars as it once did, and no longer wins big as it once did. Has Mumbai’s grasp, on the Ranji Trophy especially, slipped? He pauses momentarily. “To be honest I don’t think it has slipped at all. It’s just that certain performances, like a batsman getting 1200 runs, have not been happening. 1200 runs is an exceptional performance and selectors at the higher level cannot ignore it. Our guys have been getting 600 or 700 runs, which is good, but not exceptional. So that’s where we have been lacking and certain other states’ guys have been faring exceptionally well.”
Vinod Kambli’s absence made a difference. Hair, attitude, the whole package; you miss the runs, you miss his presence. When he plays, the difference in morale is palpable. Bahutule says this is true of the international players. “Even when Ajit plays for the team, the morale of the team just goes up. Basically the guys feel, ‘all the international stars have come in’, so they push themselves a little bit harder. All the youngsters try and learn a few things.” And when these guys retire? Then what? “Whatever these guys [the veterans] tell them, they have to register in a way that they take it along for the next ten years and give the same [advice] to the youngsters who are going to come after them. That’s been the thing with Mumbai cricket. The guys who go off leave their experiences and memories behind, and it’s up to the youngsters to take up the attitude and move forward.”
When he takes the field for Maharashtra, Mumbai, who have played him for 14 seasons, will have begun comprehending life after Bahutule. It should not affect the team, he says, for this has been a strength consistently. Players come, players go, but the focus remains the same. “I started off under Vengsarkar, Manjrekar and then Sachin, so all the players who have played for Mumbai have been very aggressive, very focused and have been motivating cricketers. They had an aim: to play for the country.”