The return of Test players to their respective domestic sides has obvious merits to teams, fans and the profile of a tournament like the Ranji Trophy. The enthralling game between Uttar Pradesh and Delhi in front of a packed house, at times with people watching from the trees, is a striking example. However, sometimes it can be counterproductive too.
It might well have been in the case of Zaheer Khan and Mumbai, whose only chance of winning on the final day was to enforce a follow-on on Railways, who were 41 adrift with two wickets in hand. Once the side batting second avoids a follow-on on a final day, there is no way you are going to get an outright result. In normal circumstances, a side with a first-innings lead and with nothing to lose on the final day would have gone all out until those 41 runs were scored, but for Mumbai their leading bowler, Zaheer, didn't even take the field.
It was surprising because his captain Ajit Agarkar had told reporters the previous day that he expected Zaheer to take the field on Monday. Zaheer had pulled up after delivering the fifth ball of his fourth spell on Sunday, abruptly terminating his follow-through, pointing towards his groin and walking off. What was then feared as a serious injury was revealed by Mumbai's captain as a cramp, together with an encouraging mention that he should be back on come the final morning.
It was clear on the final morning then that either the injury was more serious or Zaheer had the Test series on his mind and was thus unable to give it all for his Ranji side. Picking up 12 wickets on the final day would have been an arduous task for Mumbai on a relatively flat deck, but a little less so with their best bowler bowling for them. Instead, the few hundred who had gathered at the ground saw an all-too familiar conclusion to a Ranji game, a high-scoring draw and the team with a first-innings lead collecting more points.
Mumbai could have only gained with Zaheer's presence when tail-enders Krishnakant Upadhayay and Anureet Singh were smashing the ball over the in-field to get close to the follow-on target of 421. That target was achieved with both still at the crease and the game's fate was sealed, consigning it to something less than a sideshow it was to the announcement of the Test squad the same day.
So, was there unclear dissemination of information about Zaheer's injury at the end of the third day, or was he still recovering from the cramp? Or was it a precautionary decision to hold back and not bowl on the final day with a major Test coming up on November 15? If it's the latter, it's perhaps an isolated case of the inclusion of a Test player backfiring for a domestic side, due to his national priorities taking precedence over domestic duties.
Zaheer did make an appearance on the field. Shortly before lunch, he stretched, then jogged sideways, backwards, diagonally, delivered without a run-up and then walked on to one of the practice pitches during the break. Mumbai's trainer Amogh Pandit stood behind a solitary stump as Zaheer bowled close to four overs, for over 20 minutes. He was watched over by the NCA physio Ashish Kaushik and the Mumbai Cricket Association physio Niranjan Pandit in what was, presumably, a fitness test ahead of the day's selection committee meeting. He was eventually named in the squad of 15.
It's unclear if Mumbai would have enforced the follow-on even if they had managed to bowl out Railways for under 421. The Ranji schedule - with three days' break between matches - is unforgiving on the bowlers, and it is perfectly understandable if a side wants to preserve them when they don't see clear-cut chances of winning a match.
Zaheer and India's larger concern to have him fit for the Tests is also understandable, but would Mumbai have not gone all out to enforce the follow-on if one of their regular bowlers had suffered "cramps" a day before? Somewhere along the line, a Ranji Trophy match and the few hundred who had turned up to watch emerged as the biggest losers.