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December 30, 2004
Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid will turn out for their respective state sides in the final league round of the Ranji Trophy, which begins on New Year's Eve. Bengal, Ganguly's side, take on Madhya Pradesh at Kolkata in a knockout bout that will decide which team is relegated to the Plate Group next season. Bengal come into the game on the back of four successive defeats, while MP haven't managed to register even one outright win all season.
Despite having a stop-start season, Karnataka have done enough to avoid the relegation mire. Their mid-table clash with Railways - who have only a remote chance of entering the semis - is vitrually a dead rubber, and gives Dravid a chance to get some batting practice.
For most of the other teams, though, the last round of matches are crucial for progressing to the semi-final stage. Delhi face the uphill task of upstaging Mumbai at the Wankhede Stadium, and though Virender Sehwag has been ruled out, they will be reinforced by Ashish Nehra's presence. Mumbai are the only team ensured of a place in the semis, with either Delhi or Gujarat - who play Andhra away from home - in line for the second slot.
There is an even bigger scrap in the other group, with four teams vying for two semi-final berths. The return of Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan will bolster Baroda's chances in their home game against Uttar Pradesh, while VVS Laxman remains the talismanic figure in Hyderabad's plans against already-relegated Assam. Tamil Nadu not only need to win with a bonus point against Maharashtra but also hope that Baroda and Hyderabad falter in their games. Punjab, meanwhile, don't play at all, and wait for events to unfold hoping that results, and maybe even mathematical calculations, are in their favour.
Suffice to say things are getting tense and desperate. Bengal even called Utpal Chatterjee, the veteran left-arm spinner, back from retirement just for this game. The next four days promise much.
The league stages of the Plate Group have been completed with Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Haryana and Services all making it to the semi-finals.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Plays of the Day from second ODI between South Africa and Pakistan, in Port Elizabeth
Plays of the Day from the third ODI between India and West Indies, in Kanpur