Not many had turned up at the Wankhede Stadium to watch Mumbai in action on the opening day of their 500th Ranji fixture. The few that did – scattered across the Sunil Gavaskar Pavilion – were in with the hope of watching the Prithvi Shaws and Ajinkya Rahanes make a statement of Mumbai’s fabled supremacy on their home turf. Much to their dismay, as that of most in the media box, it was two unheralded Baroda bowlers who stole the thunder from a Mumbai side that reeled under a masterclass of swing bowling.
In 10 prior Ranji appearances at the ground, Mumbai had never been bowled out for a sub-200 score in the first innings. On Thursday, a combined 35.2 overs from Atit Sheth and Lukman Meriwala is all it took to dismiss the line-up that returned only one half-century and two other 20-plus scores.
Leading the charge was Sheth, whose first-class credentials boast 36 wickets from 13 innings with three five-wicket hauls and as many three-fors, coupled with 337 runs at an average of 37.44. In the ongoing season alone, he’s already made a century and two unbeaten 50-plus scores, while bagging 11 wickets from the preceding three games. As he rattled through the top order on a green top, he showcased his ability to move the ball both ways and did so with aplomb from either side of the stumps.
“This season has been good. I have been taking wickets and scoring runs. This match, especially against Mumbai in Mumbai I wanted to do well in this game, and carry on the good season. They have good players in their ranks, so doing well against Mumbai gives you a good platform,” Sheth, a former Under-19 Youth ODI player, said after his five-for.
The two deliveries that perfectly encapsulated his control over the lateral movement also fetched him what was in his assessment the “most important wickets.” In the first two overs of his opening spell, he burst through Shaw’s gate with an inswinger and elicited an edge from Rahane with one going away – both fixed by the driveable length offered.
“They have been in form, [Rahane] is a Test player. The plan was to not give their batsmen width as they like attacking. The ball was moving, it was a green wicket, and [I] wanted to take advantage of that. It had to be pitched up, because there was movement on offer from there.”
Perfectly complementing Sheth’s onslaught was 25-year-old left-arm pacer Meriwala, whose earliest encounters with cricket began some 90 kms off Baroda, as a 12-year old. Located in the Bharuch district of Gujarat, Sarnar village has been home to Meriwala since his birth and had been the incubator for his cricketing aspirations. The son of a farmer, with a younger brother and a homemaker mother and a wife making up the family of five, it was only at the behest of an acquaintance in the neighbourhood that he moved to Baroda, nearly 90 kms from his native place.
“An uncle in my village took me to the city after my parents realised how much I wanted to give cricket a try. I’ve never had any coach per se; it’s been only the training I got at the Baroda Cricket Association that I ever had.”
On a day when he made deft use of angles – the crowning glory being the one bowled around the wicket to have Siddesh Lad poke at one that moved away late – Meriwala conceded he hasn’t had to look beyond his immediate environment to give wings to dreams of showcasing his swing-bowling skills at “unchi wali cricket” (higher-level cricket). He attributes much of his learnings to the Pathan brothers – Irfan and Yusuf – the former he regards as one of his idols, and another fellow quick bowler, Munaf Patel, from a nearby town of Ikhar in Bahruch.
“Irfan bhai has backed me since my early days in Baroda. Whenever he comes to practice [at BCA], we discuss a lot of cricket. I have always held him in high esteem, even when he’s not around, he shares his inputs with me over the phone.
“Yusuf bhai advises me on batsmen and the kind of deliveries I should be bowling against particular shots. Munaf Patel lives some 25-30 kms from my village, and he too helps me with my bowling. Their guidance has had a big role to play in getting me to this stage. Going forward the target would be to bowl as few loose deliveries as possible. With my action and swing, I’m sure if I keep things tight, a wicket is never too far away.”
Exuding a warmth and shyness he ascribes to his humble upbringing, Meriwala says he wants to cash in on the season to further his India ambitions via the IPL route. He acknowledges Baroda coach Atul Bedade for his friendly disposition, which, he says, has been integral to helping him familiarise himself with ways of the city.
“He is like a friend to us; even if I make mistakes, he explains all that with a lot of patience. For a lifelong village-dweller like me, an approach like that helps unhindered communication.”
Bedade, a former India and Baroda batsman with 13 ODI and first-class appearances, has been coaching the side for the past three years, after a two-season stint with the Under-19 side from 2014-16. He describes Meriwala as a “blank canvas” whose humility and hunger to learn complements the hard work he is ever-willing to put in.
“His is what we usually call ‘raw talent’. Baroda being a small family, we try and help each other out in every way possible. There’s an inherent reticence in Lukman, but is always on the lookout to learning something new.”
Bedade was equally effusive in his praise of Sheth, who, he believes can be an asset to any team he’s part of. “He moves the ball both ways. A bowling allrounder who can contribute to the team’s cause with handy knocks. With the kind of all-round talent he has, I’m sure his skills will come to better use at a bigger stage.”