History sides with Mumbai, form favours UP
An upbeat Mohammad Kaif-led Uttar Pradesh, with a mixture of youth and experience, take on a slightly vulnerable Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy semi-final at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai on January 20.
Mumbai, 36 times-champions, who enjoyed a six-match winning streak until their 65-run loss to arch-rivals Maharashtra at the same venue in the concluding Elite Division Group A league tie, will be hoping to iron out the remaining wrinkles in their performance. There is a bit of tentativeness and apprehension in the Mumbai camp surrounding their batting, which has not clicked consistently this season. Forced to drop Sushant Marathe, the opener, and Abhijit Shetye, middle-order batsman, and missing Sachin Tendulkar, Ajit Agarkar and Wasim Jaffer, Mumbai would be relying on Amol Muzumdar, Vinit Indulkar and Nishit Shetty to come up with significant innings, while they turn to Nilesh Kulkarni, the captain, Avishkar Salvi and Ramesh Powar to impress with the ball.
"We look unsettled because the guys have not scored. We have failed to put a big score. It's time people such as Nishit Shetty converted those 30s into something big. They have to take more responsibility. The fast bowlers have been disciplined in the last few matches but they need to be consistent. This is a do-or-die match and we'll be going in with a positive mindset," Karsan Ghavri, the coach, said on the eve of the game.
Kulkarni chose to focus on his team. "We will have to get the basics right and concentrate on our strengths rather than the opposition. We are positive in our approach and this time we shall ensure that we won't repeat the mistakes that we made in our last games against Maharashtra. We made mistakes mainly due to lack of discipline among our batsmen,'' he said. Mumbai, of course, would be missing Wasim Jaffer, the man in form this season, for the big game as he is away to Pakistan on national duty. "We want Wasim to do well in international cricket. He should open for India and I think he will. As for missing his services, the rest of us should chip in." Kulkarni said.
Mumbai will be looking to Powar who has had a great run of form with bat and ball, to shepherd them to a place in the final. But Kulkarni realises that they just cannot depend only on Powar. "He's done exceptionally well for the team, but then everybody else has to pitch in." Powar seemed to agree with his captain. "I do well under pressure but I don't want to play in those circumstances again, "said the allrounder.
Meanwhile Uttar Pradesh, charged by young talent inspired under the leadership of Kaif, are upbeat about their chances. Rajinder Singh Hans, the coach, sounded confident on the eve of the big game. "Our team is a mix of youth and experience. Piyush Chawla and Praveen Kumar are youngsters who have been performing, along with experienced Ashish Zaidi and Gyanendra Pandey. With Kaif as leader, we have a confident unit. He sets an example himself. With him in the side, we have won both the matches." Gyanendra Pandey, the veteran, agreed with his coach. "Kaif brings a sense of energy to the side. He comes to the nets, is the most hyper, gets younger guys into different drills and practising is fun, all of a sudden," he said.
The UP team had a rough start this season, losing the first two matches to Haryana and Baroda and drawing their next two games, against Services and Punjab, before Kaif joined the camp to charge them to a place in the semi-final. Speaking on the eve of the game, Kaif sounded upbeat. "We beat Hyderabad on an absolute flat track. That shows our bowlers are in nice touch. And we beat Andhra on an Anantpur pitch that is quite similar to the Wankhede's. We have a great opportunity to probably win a Ranji Trophy," he said. With Suresh Raina and Kaif, two of the top three fielders in the country, in their side UP's fielding will put Mumbai under pressure.
History favours Mumbai - it took UP 40 years to register their first and only win against Mumbai in Ranji Trophy - but current form gives UP a slight advantage. With UP peaking at the right time and Mumbai playing at home, a tough battle is on the cards.