Fresh legs versus old hands

When Punjab won the Ranji Trophy for the first-and only-time, Harbhajan Singh, then 12, was still haggling between inheriting his family's ball-bearing business and pursuing cricket as a serious profession. Twenty years on, the 32-year-old off-spinner stands one short of having played 100 Tests for India. He's also been the foremost cricketer to have emerged from his state since.

And on Saturday, Harbhajan returns to the Punjab camp to lead the Group A toppers against Mumbai at the Wankhede Stadium. In a strange twist of fate though, their captain's return to the mix could well seem an excess to the needs of the in-form outfit.

Some might even have dared to wonder if Punjab weren't better of without Harbhajan. After all, they've made their most dominant start to a Ranji campaign in over two decades. A tally of 29 points-18 clear of second-placed Madhya Pradesh-four outright wins in five games and some stellar individual performances should be proof enough. Their victories have been by massive margins too-two by an innings and the other two by eight and nine wickets respectively.

And they've achieved it with very limited contribution from their star player and skipper, who in fact has only played one game for Punjab this season. Even in that game, the opener against Hyderabad, it was a debut double-ton to Jiwanjot Singh, a century to Karan Goel and a five-wicket haul to Siddharth Kaul that set up an innings victory against an opposition bolstered by the presence of VVS Laxman. Harbhajan had only chipped in with three second-innings wickets-two of them tail-enders-after having remained wicket-less in the first.

The running theme

Youth power, in fact, has been the running theme of Punjab's dream run over the last month and a half. Their unprecedented success has been built on the young shoulders of the imperious Jiwanjot-who averages 103.16 in five games with three match-winning centuries-the Kaul brothers and U-19 World Cup winner Sandeep Sharma. And the captain couldn't help but acknowledge the leadership roles that the junior members of his team have taken up so remarkably during his absence. "It's very exciting to see the youngsters doing so well like Jiwanjot and our three seamers. They are all young, around 20-22 being their average age but they have displayed immense maturity," said Harbhajan.

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