Thomas unconcerned by Chepauk pitch
Somerset and Mumbai Indians came into the Champions League Twenty20 saddled with a strikingly similar bunch of setbacks. Both began the tournament without several of their biggest names, including their first-choice captains. Both have come close to silverware in recent years without managing to go all the way; MI have been in the final and semi-finals of the last two IPLs, while Somerset have finished second best in five of the last six English domestic tournaments over the previous two years. Saturday's semi-final will be a depressing addition to one of those two trends.
Somerset arrived in India a day after their dispiriting defeat in the CB40 final, and had to go through the lottery that was the qualifying round. They played their league games in Hyderabad and Bangalore, but will now have to adapt to the treacherously unpredictable Chepauk wicket in Chennai, where their opponents have played three of their four fixtures. However, the Somerset captain Alfonso Thomas was not too concerned that his side's first look at the strip will be in a knockout game.
"The wicket in Chennai looks quite slow, but we have a couple of spinners and hopefully things will work out in our favour," Thomas said. "We came from England and had only a day ahead of the first qualifier. I thought the guys did quite well in that game [so I am not too worried about preparation]. At the end of the day it is a game of XI v XI."
The Mumbai Indians captain Harbhajan Singh, also chose to downplay the concerns surrounding the pitch. "I don't know how good this wicket will play, whether it is low or slow. But this is the same wicket where David Warner scored a hundred," Harbhajan said. "You can't really complain about wickets and facilities; you just have to do well with what you have."
While their pre-tournament woes may have been similar, the two XIs have charted completely different courses to reach the semi-finals. Somerset had to fill the holes in their line-up with youngsters, while Mumbai got a generous helping hand from the organisers, who allowed them to play a fifth overseas player. With Suryakumar Yadav now deemed fit, they will have to do without the fifth foreigner for the rest of the tournament.
"I don't know how much of a luxury it was at the end of the day," Harbhajan said of the privilege extended to his side through the league phase. "This now is an opportunity for guys like Suryakumar, Sarul [Kanwar], R Satish and T Suman to show their mettle on the field, and will make it easier for us to decide who to pick in the next IPL."
Harbhajan will have a tough time deciding which of his five foreign players to bench. Kieron Pollard endured a blow on his hand on the match eve, but Harbhajan confirmed that it wasn't serious enough to keep him out. Lasith Malinga and James Franklin are also likely to retain their spots, meaning one of Aiden Blizzard and Andrew Symonds could miss out. His bigger worry, though, will be over his top-order's poor returns in each of the three games they have played at Chepauk.
"Given the kind of batting line up we have, we have not performed up to expectations and reputations," Harbhajan said. "But Twenty20 is not the kind format in which you always need to be in the best of your form to do well. It is really a matter of the first five balls - if you connect well, it could be your day. If you get a wicket with your first or second ball, you can be a different bowler."
Somerset, on the other hand, have no concerns on the form front. "The absence of first-choice players gave opportunities to a couple of youngsters," Thomas said. "That was probably a good thing because now these youngsters don't really have the fear of failure. Most of the guys have got game-time, so we have 14 guys who have played at some point in the tournament."
It has been an eventful tournament for Harbhajan, after being forced to lead because of Sachin Tendulkar's injury. He had to deal with the personal setback of being left out of the Indian side for the first time in years. He didn't allow that disappointment to affect him, though; he has remained ebullient off the field, while bowling with purpose and leading well on it.
"Not having the full-strength side can bring the best out of some people," Harbhajan said. "It was a great opportunity for me to and I have enjoyed every moment of it. I always believed that if each one of us did what we were capable of, we could win this tournament. The results will only matter if you think too much about them. We are not bothered about the results, but I have made sure that we gave it our best shot and expressed ourselves."
Harbhajan may not admit it, but come Saturday night, the result will matter.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo