Rahane, Musheer get down and dirty to leave Vidarbha in the mud

Their shirts covered in dust, Ajinkya Rahane and Musheer Khan appeared to be in the middle of an advertisement for a detergent.

At different points on the second day of the Ranji Trophy final, both batters had to dive to make their ground. In the process, they ended up staining their shirts, which told the story of their struggle.

For the first half of their 107-run partnership, the runs were not easy to come and they had to rely on quick singles and doubles. In fact, the first 22 overs of their stand produced only 40 runs and one boundary. But they kept grinding out and, by stumps, had all but batted Vidarbha out of the contest.

Earlier in the day, Mumbai had bundled out Vidarbha for 105, thus taking a lead of 119. But Vidarbha would not have been in the final had they not staged comebacks from such situations.

In the semi-final against Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha had conceded a first-innings lead of 82. But they bounced back in the second innings to register a comfortable victory. A similar turnaround in the final was not impossible, especially when Mumbai lost their openers with 34 runs on the board.

That brought in the middle two batters at the opposite ends of their careers: Rahane, a veteran of 85 Tests but no longer in the national selectors’ plans, and Musheer, fresh from an Under-19 World Cup and playing only his sixth first-class game.

Their forms were equally contrasting. Coming into the final, Rahane had scored only 134 runs at an average of 13.40 this season. A strong performance might have kept him on the periphery of India’s Test squad, but those hopes evaporated more and more with every passing game.

Musheer, meanwhile, was the second-highest run-getter at the World Cup, with 360 runs at an average of 60.00 and a strike rate of 98.09. He carried that form into the Ranji Trophy as well. Landing straight into the quarter-final, he scored 203 not out and 33 against Baroda. He followed it up with a 55 on a treacherous pitch in the semi-final. After just three innings, his run tally (291) was more than double of Rahane’s.

But neither Rahane nor Musheer had an easy start on Monday. Left-arm spinner Harsh Dubey was weaving a web with the new ball. He got one to pitch on leg stump and turn square to beat Musheer’s outside edge. When the batter tried to use his feet, Dubey shortened the length to make him look silly.

Rahane was on 1 when he survived an lbw appeal against Umesh. The on-field call of not-out saved him when the Hawk-Eye showed the ball just clipping the top of middle stump.

Both batters had their outside edge beaten multiple times by Umesh and Aditya Thakare, but they managed to survive. They also benefitted from left-arm spinner Aditya Sarwate, Vidarbha’s leading wicket-taker for the season, unable to bowl because of back spasms.

At tea, Musheer was on 13 off 55 and Rahane 9 off 39. Something changed after tea. Or perhaps just before it, and the effect was seen only after the break. In the penultimate over before the break, the ball had to be changed as its seam had come off.

Or it could simply be that the two batters had spent sufficient time in the middle by then, and were primed to accelerate against an older ball.

When play resumed, Thakare pitched one full around off and Rahane unleashed a gorgeous on-drive for the first boundary of the partnership.

Sarwate finally came on to bowl in the 28th over but did not look 100% fit. Nor did he get the purchase Dubey was getting. When he overpitched one to Rahane, the batter used his wrists to hit against the turn and thread the gap between short midwicket and mid-on.

In the following over, Rahane brought up the fifty of the partnership with a pulled four off Yash Thakur. It took the pair 140 balls but the next fifty would take only 76.

Musheer stepped up by jumping out of his crease and smashing Sarwate down the ground. When the spinner shortened his length for the next delivery, Musheer was quick to go back and punch it through covers for four more.

In his next over, Sarwate dropped one short and Rahane duly pulled it over midwicket for a six. And just like that, the biggest threat was taken for 35 runs in seven overs. That too on a day where no other frontline Vidarbha bowler conceded more than 2.7 per over.

The acceleration meant that Rahane reached his fifty in just 88 balls. It was an emotional celebration. He kept his head down and held the bat high for a while, with Musheer giving him a hug and a pat on the back.

When Musheer brought up his half-century, in the last over of the day, his dad gestured to him from the stands to stay there and carry on. Musheer gestured back in acknowledgement.

At stumps, Rahane and Musheer walked off to a standing ovation from the sparse crowd, which included Sunil Gavaskar and Diana Edulji. They must be saying what a khadoos effort, or, perhaps, daag achhe hain [Stains are good].

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