A sorry narrative: Mumbai's downfall in first-class cricket

A shadow of their former selves.
A shadow of their former selves.
Gulraj Bedi

For many years, Mumbai were the undisputed dominant force in Indian first-class cricket. Not long ago, the team has produced some of the finest cricketers to have represented the national side such as the legendary Sunil Gavaskar or the tiger-eyed Dilip Vengsarkar, or the all-time great Sachin Tendulkar.

Mumbai ruled the Indian domestic circuit right from the early 1970s up until the early 2000s. As far as the numbers go, they have won the Ranji Trophy, India’s premier first-class competition, a record 41 times. That's a staggering record, isn't it? At present, the emergence of the cash-rich Indian Premier League is luring the youngsters away from first-class cricket, especially the young talents of this cricket-rich city.

Sachin Tendulkar.
Sachin Tendulkar. Dilip Vengsarkar.

What’s Wrong with the game?

Dilip Vengsarkar India v England 2nd ODI 1981

Well, nothing. It’s the mindset that has changed. In times of ‘slam-bang cricket”, the country’s first-class competitions are lagging. Dwindling crowds and lack of frequent cash inflows have led to the demise of first-class cricket in Mumbai. Also, cricketers no longer see first-class cricket as a building block. Nobody has the time and patience to play the four-day game in the fast-paced city. Some say it is way too slow for anybody’s liking. Others say that the standard of pitches has declined drastically.

 A traditionalist would always choose the pleasures of the four-day game over the thrills and spills of 20-over cricket, but not everybody in today’s so-called fast-paced world shares this belief. Getting access to easy money is what all of us desire these days.

First-class cricket no Longer a ticket to fame

Twenty20 is what everybody wants to play. Twenty20 cricket happens to be a formidable force because players performing well in the country's first-class competitions are less likely to get a national call-up, but those performing well in the IPL are likely to don the national colours much earlier than expected.

Take this for an example: Shreyas Iyer has been scoring heavily for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy season after season but is still struggling to break into the national side, while the likes of Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah have stormed into the national side on the back of impressive performances in the Indian Premier League. Therefore, it won't be wrong to say that Twenty20 cricket has become a player’s path to success.

The likes of Siddhesh Lad and Akhil Herwadkar have also been scoring heavily in the Ranji Trophy but still, haven’t been able to break into the national side. Such has been the plight of players scoring runs for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy.

Mumbai’s dwindling numbers

Mumbai’s dominance as the country’s cricketing powerhouse has taken a hit in recent times. The team won its last Ranji Trophy title in 2015-2016. Since then, other teams have raised their game, and have been giving stiff competition to a state that was once considered the powerhouse of Indian domestic circuit.

Take Saurashtra's example: The lads from Saurashtra have been taking giant strides in the domestic circuit. Back in the early 2000s, Mumbai could send Saurashtra packing within a day, but today Saurashtra is performing way better than Mumbai. In the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy season, Saurashtra had qualified for the knockouts from Group A, while the team from Mumbai found itself eliminated and could just about manage to avoid relegation. With the likes of Ajinkya Rahane on national duty, the youngsters from Mumbai had been unable to carry the team into the knockouts.

You can also they that players coming from smaller states are giving tough competition to the Mumbai lads. Cheteshwar Pujara (Saurashtra) has been the mainstay of India's batting order in the longest format for quite some time.

There’s something missing

If we take a look at the Mumbai teams from the 1970s and the 1980s, we will realise that, in those days, there used to be at least one good player who used to captain the side while inspiring the youngsters to go out there and express themselves. That inspirational figure seems to be missing in Mumbai’s line-up at present. Earlier, you had the likes of Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Tendulkar captaining the side, but today you won’t find many senior players coming back into the domestic team and inspiring the youngsters.

A pinch of nostalgia and a state of sorrow

One can still recall some nail-biting contests wherein Mumbai, having the legendary Tendulkar in its ranks, decimated oppositions within a couple of days. The bats used to do the talking, and the bowlers used to run berserk with wickets falling like ninepins. Those were the glory days of cricket in Mumbai. Quite sadly, they are gone now, perhaps forever. 

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Edited by S Chowdhury
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