Abhishek Nayar once again proved his value for the Mumbai Ranji team as his gutsy 91 enabled the defending champions set Gujarat a stiff target of 312 in the final of the Ranji Trophy in Indore on Friday.
By stumps on the fourth day, Gujarat openers Priyank Panchal (34 batting) and Samit Gohil (8 batting) helped the second-time finalists reach 47 for no loss, with another 265 required on the final day with all 10 wickets intact.
For Gujarat, while the target would be to win outright, they would not mind batting through the day as the first innings lead would ensure them their maiden Ranji Trophy.
In Panchal (1310 runs), they have an in-form player, while Gohil, during his 359, had shown that he can hang around. It will be interesting to see if Gujarat employ a defensive technique or go for the chase and the fifth day promises to be an intriguing one.
That Mumbai are still firmly in contention despite conceding a 100-run first innings lead, is because of Nayar -- who fell nine runs short of what would have been a deserving 14th hundred. But it was his rearguard action that enabled Mumbai to reach 411 in their second innings.
The bulk of his runs came batting with the Nos 10 and 11 Vishal Dabholkar (10) and Vijay Gohil (0). The two tail-enders were protected by the senior-most pro as he steadily built a handy lead which would at least give the seamers a chance to defend the trophy despite the wicket still being batting friendly.
While Shreyas Iyer (82) and Prithvi Shaw (44) had provided the platform on the third day, the other significant contributor on the penultimate day was captain Aditya Tare (69).
Surya Kumar Yadav (49, 215 balls) played an innings, contrary to his attacking style of batsmanship.
But the story of the fourth day was Nayar – an embodiment of Mumbai cricket's dogged and fighting qualities.
There were five fours and five sixes in his innings with all the maximums coming after the fall of ninth wicket. That was the time when Nayar chanced his arms as he hit three sixes
off off-spinner Rujul Bhatt -- two over long-off and one over cow corner. The other two were smacked off seamer Chintan Gaja (6/121) over deep mid-wicket.
With the most unorthodox batting style and limited range of strokes, Nayar has been a domestic doyen despite never being considered worthy enough of having a great international career.
However, at the domestic level, the Mumbai team has always valued his khadoos qualities that has fetched him 588 runs and 24 wickets (he still has one day left to increase his wickets tally).
If Nayar gets a few crucial breakthroughs on the final day and Mumbai once again come back from the dead to what would be their 42nd title, it will only add to his legend.
Image: Abhishek Nayar