Roger Federer is by a distance the most celebrated male player in the history of tennis. A record 17 Grand Slam titles is but the icing on the cake in a career that has been remarkable not just for style, grace, elegance and dignity, but also for its longevity. Now 31, the Swiss maestro shows no sign of slowing down, hunting down ambitious young turks with a single-mindedness that sets the champion apart from the rest.
Almost as astonishing as his 17 Grand Slam crowns is the fact that between Wimbledon 2004 and Australian Open 2010, Federer reached the semifinals of every single Grand Slam. We are talking 23 consecutive Slams where Federer was in the last four, a testament to his consistency and his ability to adapt to all kinds of surfaces. Robin Soderling, the tall Swede, ended that streak by putting Federer out in the quarterfinals of the French Open in June 2010, but that did little to diminish the aura which surrounds Federer.
In the last couple of years, Novak Djokovic has emerged as the man to beat, Andy Murray is just coming off a breakthrough year that brought him his first Slam title as well as the Olympic Games gold, and Rafael Nadal, when he is fit and untroubled by a dodgy knee that is finally protesting against years of being forced to pound the courts, is a legend in his own right. But when the draw for any tournament involving Federer is made, the lesser lights are left hoping they don’t run into the Swiss surgeon who bleeds opponents dry almost apologetically, with a nick here, a little cut there.
Federer making the business end of this year's Australian Open is as unsurprising as Mumbai making it to yet another Ranji Trophy final. Like Federer, Mumbai are no longer the most feared unit in Indian domestic cricket. They no longer lord over the domestic scene like they did in the past, when most matches were won and lost even before the teams stepped on to the park. Their hegemony over the Ranji Trophy has been tested time and again in the last few years even as teams such as Rajasthan and Saurashtra are consistently beginning to make their presence felt. But even so, if there is a team to beat in the Ranji Trophy, it is Mumbai.
Mumbai has variously been called the cradle and nursery of Indian cricket, the assembly line that throws up players capable of being blooded in the Test arena in the confidence that they have the game as well as the temperament to make it big in the ultimate cauldron. The Kanga League, a unique tournament that disregards the weather and requires players to adapt or else, has been touted as one of the major reasons for the profusion of hard-nosed, khadoos cricketers to emerge from the Mumbai stables.
Yet, not since Ramesh Powar played in Bangladesh in the middle of 2007 has a player from Mumbai made it to the Indian Test XI. Dhawal Kulkarni, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane have all been in Test squads but haven't broken through, while in the same period, Saurashtra have given the Indian Test XI three players – Jaydev Unadkat, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja – and there have been four debutants from Tamil Nadu – M Vijay, S Badrinath, Abhinav Mukund and R Ashwin.
Saurashtra made the semifinals in 2007-08 and 08-09, while Tamil Nadu, losing semifinalists in 2008-09, were beaten in the final last year when Rajasthan completed their second successive triumph. Between Powar’s debut and now, Mumbai have won the title twice and made it to the final this time around too, where they lock horns with first-time finalists Saurashtra.
For a majority of this season, it appeared as if Mumbai would not even make it to the knockout quarterfinals. They had only 14 points from their first six games, conceding the first-innings lead twice and seeing a young Hyderabad team amass 699. Then, pushed to a corner and with elimination looming large, they closed ranks to eke out a narrow seven-run win over Madhya Pradesh before taking the innings honours against Gujarat to finish third in their group and advance to the next stage.
That game against Madhya Pradesh, in Indore, typified Mumbai's grit and resolve. Admittedly, they did have the services of Zaheer Khan, and they owe Zaheer big-time for having fashioned that thrilling win against all odds, but even with defeat and exit on the cards, they never gave up.
Desperate for six points, Mumbai left Madhya Pradesh with a tricky target of 311, and Madhya Pradesh responded brilliantly by reaching 175 for 1 on the back of a solid hundred by Jalaj Saxena, the opener. Then, out of nowhere, Zaheer sprang to life. In an 11-over burst separated only by the tea break on the final day, he ripped the heart out of Madhya Pradesh, his experience and command over his craft all too obvious. By the time the dust settled, he had picked up five wickets but the job was still not done as Amarjeet Singh and Ishwar Pandey, the last pair, lashed out with the finish line tantalisingly in sight.
It took the golden arm of Abhishek Nayar, Mumbai's go-to man this season with 940 runs and 16 wickets, to end the entertaining last-wicket pair and secure a dramatic win amid mounting tension. The points in the bag, Mumbai gathered steam, the presence of Sachin Tendulkar for the knockout phase returning the aura of invincibility to a great extent.
It was anything but a glorious run in the league stages as Mumbai chopped and changed their squad, tinkered with their opening pair, used a plethora of quicker bowlers and spinners, and generally struggled to hit upon the right combination. In all, they have used 22 players thus far in ten matches and only two – Nayar and Aditya Tare, the wicketkeeper-batsman – have played in all games. Between them, Rahane and Rohit have made only nine appearances, snared away by international duties, yet every time they have been pushed into a corner, Mumbai have somehow found the wherewithal to bounce back.
Mumbai have won the Ranji Trophy an astonishing 39 times – that's one title more than all other teams combined in Ranji history. This is their 44th appearance in the final, which means going into this title clash, they have only lost four finals previously. That’s a remarkable statistic, a clear illustration that no team in Indian cricket knows how to handle the big moments and pressure situations better than Mumbai. Is the sum of the parts greater than the whole, or is it the whole that makes the parts appear greater than they are? It's a question pundits have been asking season after season; the answer, it would seem, is far from clear, the Mumbai magic still to be deconstructed.