First-timers face big stars, bigger odds

Despite being ensconced in distant Dharamsala's snug woolens, Cheteshwar Pujara couldn't avoid his name hotting up debates miles away in Mumbai. After all Saurashtra will take on mighty Mumbai in their maiden Ranji Trophy final, minus their inspirational batsman. Ask any Saurashtra player, and they'll all tell you that had Pujara been around, the complexion of this summit clash would've looked starkly different. By Thursday night it was clear that no player from the Indian ODI team would be released for the face-off, which meant Saurashtra have to face Mumbai — star-studded opponents, where Sachin Tendulkar's name is almost a sum-total of their entire Saurashtra line-up.

On paper, Mumbai once again look sturdy favourites to win another crown, and it won't come as a surprise if they turn this into a lopsided contest. Statistically, they have entered the Ranji Trophy final a record 44th time, winning it a staggering 39 times. Also they boast of the most formidable experience, with the team knowing all the tricks to win big games. Four Mumbai batsmen — Abhishek Nayar (904 runs), Wasim Jaffer (703 runs), Hiken Shah (718 runs) and Aditya Tare (839 runs) — have crossed the 700-mark this season while opener Kaustubh Pawar has 583 runs. International cricket's most prolific batsman Tendulkar has scored 310 runs in the last four innings for his home team, including two centuries.

His record in the past five finals he's played in is even more intimidating — Tendulkar has four hundreds, while their opener Jaffer recalls playing in seven finals, not losing even once. Saurashtra captain Jaydev Shah can't help feeling that Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja's presence would have made all the difference. The relative minnows are clearly not as accustomed to playing without their stars as Mumbai have been all these years. "Both did very well in the Ranji Trophy. If they'd been with us, we would've been mentally upbeat and Mumbai would have felt more pressure. But we have to fight without them," Shah rues.

However, what's brought both these teams to the cusp of glory is that both teams, despite pining after their big names, have invariably found someone within their ranks who's put his hand up when needed. For it wasn't exactly a stroll into the quarters, and qualifying was quite a struggle. In the quarter-finals at Palam, Mumbai saw captain Ajit Agarkar and keeper Aditya Tare dig deep against Services. While Saurashtra saw Sitanshu Kotak and Sheldon Jackson defend stoutly before Vishal Joshi's off-spin hauled them back into contention.

"Mumbai's had good performances from most of the squad, and that's what you want though there've been stand-out ones like Nayar, Tare and Wasim. Everyone has chipped in at important times," says Agarkar, a sentiment echoed by Shah when describing his bunch.

Only chance

Shah knows that records don't favour them. These two west zone rivals have met 52 times in the Ranji Trophy, with Saurashtra taking the first-innings lead only four times while they've never managed to win. Mumbai have claimed outright wins 26 times. Being a five-day final game, teams are expecting an outright result though it'll be crucial to note that Saurashtra don't have a single win outside of Rajkot.

Saurashtra will rely on their batsmen, Kotak, Sagar Jogyani, Sheldon Jackson (the only batsman in the team to have crossed 700) and Arpit Vasavada, and if they want to win, there's no doubt that they'll be expected to play five days of quality, ceaselessly competitive cricket. As Kotak put it, one can only beat Mumbai by batting them out.

"Or if we field first, we have to try and utilize the wicket and dismiss the first five batsmen quickly. Keep it tight and bowl them out for a score of 200 to 300 and then you try to bat them out of the game. You have to play one big innings and you are needed to bowl them out once," Kotak explains.

The Wankhede pitch is expected to suit pacers but Saurashtra will hope that their bowlers stand up and get counted at this crucial time. Jaydev Unadkat will be the key, as he's been getting them the breakthroughs throughout the season, and spinners Vishal Joshi and Dharmendrasinh Jadeja will look to shine on the occasion. Finals don't come around every other day, and it's taken Saurashtra 75 years to reach the final.

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