Mumbai won the Ranji Trophy for the 40th time in January when they beat Saurashtra at the Wankhede. Nevertheless, the long-drawn season was not without its share of anxieties for the eventual champions: they found themselves in must-win situations towards the closing stages of the league phase. And one man who witnessed everything from close quarters was coach Sulakshan Kulkarni.
As Mumbai get ready for the 2013-14 season opener against Haryana in the latter’s den from October 27, Kulkarni opens up to MiD DAY about his team’s preparations and what fans can expect in the next couple of months.
How have the preparations in the run up to the Ranji Trophy opener against Haryana been?
I would say I am satisfied with the preparations that the team has had over the past couple of months. Although we didn’t go for the Buchi Babu tournament, we emerged champions in the Bapuna Cup in Nagpur recently. We got a chance to look closely at most of our probables and I am pleased with the way we performed and beat Kerala to win the tournament. The other thing is, if you look at our squad for the first match, most of the players have been able to get crucial match practice. For example, Abhishek Nayar, who was outstanding last season, was part of the India ‘A’ squad recently. They have been playing the Times Shield and the Kanga League. So I don’t think we are short of match practice.
The squad for the first game includes youngsters like batsman Siddhesh Lad and wicketkeeper-batsman Sufiyan Shaikh. You also have young pacer Balwinder Singh Sandhu (Jr). What are your expectations from them?
These players are young, but they have been around for the past couple of seasons. Balwinder in fact has played a few Ranji games for us so he should be looking at improving with every opportunity. I have been highly impressed with Siddhesh and Sufiyan. They have been performing so well that nobody could have ignored them. They did well for us in Nagpur and are also doing well in the other tournaments. I am confident we are looking at two talented players who are hungry to do well for Mumbai.
Sachin Tendulkar, who will be retiring at the end of the second Test against West Indies next month, is also part of the squad for the first game. Do you think the build-up that is taking place before he hangs his boots will affect the players or overshadow the game itself?
I can understand the emotions, but we have an experienced set of players. They know how to handle difficult situations and I am sure they will be fully focused on the game once we are on the field. Last year we made things difficult for ourselves by not accumulating enough points at the beginning of the season. The players are aware of it and they don’t want that situation to repeat.
Given the absence of Ajit Agarkar who retired recently and the migration of veteran off-spinner Ramesh Powar to Rajasthan, do you think Mumbai’s bowling line-up is relatively weak?
I wouldn’t say we have a ‘weak look’. You could say some of our bowlers are inexperienced, but on the positive side, this is an opportunity for them to make the most of the chances they get. You must remember that Zaheer Khan will be leading the side against Haryana. He has been amongst India’s best bowlers, and is keen to pass on tips to the younger lot. The young bowlers like Javed Khan and Balwinder will gain immensely merely by Zaheer’s presence in the team. Then you have Dhawal Kulkarni who has substantial experience and has contributed commendably to the team.
What do you make of the spin attack in Powar’s absence?
Iqbal Abdulla and Vishal Dabholkar are the spinners that have been selected for the Haryana game. While Vishal made his debut last year, Abdulla will play in his sixth season. Vishal was very impressive in the three games he played as it’s never easy to make your debut in a knock-out game and then carry on from there. Abdulla was not very successful last year, but from what I have seen over the past three months, he has worked very hard and has been taking wickets regularly. He has worked on several aspects of his bowling and the results are showing.
How are you approaching the forthcoming season, as in, are you going to take it match by match or have you chalked out a broad strategy for the entire season?
Given the international and the domestic schedule, it’s not possible for us to make plans for the entire season. We will have to approach every game as it comes. Availability of players will determine our thinking. For example, players like Rohit Sharma, Zaheer and Ajinkya Rahane could be called up any time for India duty, so we have to adjust accordingly. But I will not hesitate in saying one thing: I have nothing to worry as long as I have Wasim Jaffer in the team. He has been phenomenal for us and I hope he can continue that way this season too.