The makings of a classic
Just when you think you've had enough cricket, having dozed through one ODI series and awaiting another, here's a match that could prove to be a classic, and a match deserving of being the Ranji Trophy final. Bengal and Mumbai have taken contrasting routes to get to here: Bengal reached their second consecutive final via a smooth, composed, and assured march, and face red-hot Mumbai who - much like Uttar Pradesh last year - have risen dramatically from the shambles they were in midway through the season.
Bengal, too, have had a turnaround of sorts, but far more gradual, having to pick themselves up from their loss in last year's final. "There are more reasons to celebrate our performance throughout the season than to mourn this loss," said Ranadeb Bose exactly a year ago in Lucknow after Bengal had lost a close match to UP. The team was wrapped in gloom, thanks to a dodgy umpiring decision and a dodgy wicket, and finally the fact that UP, the hosts, had started the presentation and speeches before the Bengal players had arrived. Yet even then, as Bose's fellow pacer Shib Shankar Paul organised a game of volleyball, they were probably aware that better things were to follow, that it would be them and not the champions carrying the "favourites" tag.
Their performance this season has lived up to that billing. They have been consistent; their batsmen solid, their bowlers penetrative; and they have raised their game in crunch situations, as they showed against Punjab, Hyderabad, and Karnataka. "We have come back a better team," Bose said at the nets before the final. Paul stands on the sidelines, practising with the team but unable to play following a pre-season knee operation. "We have recovered well from his loss, with Sourav Sarkar and Ashok Dinda doing well," says Bose.
But when it comes to recoveries Mumbai are past masters. From zero points in three games, and from 0 for 5 - the worst start ever in first class cricket in India - in the second innings of the semi-final, Mumbai have absorbed everything, and returned in kind. Three straight wins in the league stages and a dogged fightback by the tail in the semi-final have given them loads of confidence.
Add to that the four India players who will be joining the side for the final - Sachin Tendulkar, Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer Khan, and Ramesh Powar - and all of a sudden Nilesh Kulkarni's statement that Bengal have got to be intimidated sounds more conviction than boasting.
However, the presence of stars presents its own problems: With the inclusion of Tendulkar and Zaheer's debut, Mumbai would have tried 21 players over the season, a reflection of the turmoil they've been through. The stars will have to straightaway gel into the team. Bengal, on the other hand, have operated as a well-oiled machine, never having to look beyond the original fifteen. They also have the psychological advantage of having made Mumbai follow-on, for the first time in their history, earlier this season.
That match in Kolkata must seem so long ago for this Mumbai on the up. The last time they lost in the Ranji finals was a thrilling two-run defeat to Haryana in 1990-91; they have won six finals since; and seven of the likely eleven have tasted Ranji success before. They have beaten Bengal in all the six finals they have met in before. Sourav Ganguly is the only Ranji champion in the Bengal team - they last won in 1989-90 in an undecided match but due to better run quotient - apart from coach Paras Mhambrey who won with Mumbai in 2002-03.
The wicket looks a perfect Wankhede track: hard and bouncy, with a tinge of grass. Sudhir Naik, the curator, says it is a fair track that will suit pacers early on and spinners in the latter parts of the match. Unless the cricket is very unenterprising, there should be a result on this wicket. A perfect test for the batsmen would be to face Bengal pacers on the first morning and Mumbai spinners on the final afternoon.
Bose, on the losing side last year at Lucknow, said the biggest difference in the two matches would be the wicket which is more sporting. "There should be a lot of bounce and carry, and sideways movement too," said Amol Muzumdar, the Mumbai captain.
For the neutral seeking a team to support, the choice is difficult. Bengal are a team that experienced heartbreak last year and instead of disintegrating, consolidated on their progress; a team that treated the previous loss just as the first lap of a race, and are now at that final step. Mumbai are a team that have been ridiculed for letting down the glorious past, and have come back with the most emphatic of replies. The best way to decide, and that's what makes it a perfect finale, would be to sit through five days at the Wankhede. One of the teams has to present reasons more compelling than the other's to lift the Ranji Trophy.
Mumbai (likely) Amol Muzumdar, Wasim Jaffer, Sahil Kukreja, Sachin Tednulkar, Rohit Verma, Abhishek Nair, Ramesh Powar, Vinayak Samant, Ajit Agarkar, Nilesh Kulkarni, Zaheer Khan, Wilkin Mota (12th man)
Bengal (likely) Deep Dasgupta, Arindam Das, Abhishek Jhunjhunwala, Manoj Tiwary, Sourav Ganguly, Rohan Gavaskar, Laxmi Ratan Shukla, Saurashish Lahiri, Sourav Sarkar, Ranadeb Bose, Ashok Dinda, Subhomoy Das (12th man)
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer of Cricinfo magazine