In-form UP to test Maharashtra
At the Subrata Roy Sahara Stadium on the outskirts of Pune, there's a parade of security dogs every morning. As the dogs were put through their paces a day ahead of Maharashtra's Ranji Trophy match against Uttar Pradesh, one of the local officials - pointing at the parade - said to his colleague, "Raina, Kaif, Chawla, Bhuvneshwar and Imtiaz". His colleague, a fairly influential person in the Maharashtra Cricket Association, was confused. "What do you mean?" "Let a dog loose after each of the players," the official said, and his colleagues burst out laughing.
Jokes aside, Maharashtra do enter their first Ranji match of the season as underdogs. The combined first-class appearances of all of Maharashtra's squad (253) is far fewer than the tally of the three UP Test players who are set to feature in the game - Mohammad Kaif (141), Piyush Chawla (78) and Suresh Raina (75).
If the gulf in experience doesn't underline the mismatch, Maharashtra, just returning after two seasons facing lightweight opposition in the Plate League, are up against a UP side that last week beat one of the strongest Delhi teams to have taken the field in years.
For UP, after registering an emphatic victory against a side that included Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli, facing a developing team like Maharashtra should be a much easier task. Raina, though, realises the risk involved in his team being complacent against a side that lacks stars.
"Maharashtra have very good batsmen. They will look to build partnerships. They have a lot of players up the order who can build partnerships and score big," Raina said after batting in the nets for over an hour. "We just can't take any team lightly since it's a four-day game and one exceptional performance can shift the balance of the match. We have to keep our intensity high. If we keep on doing things right, rewards will follow."
With the likes of Ankit Bawne, Kedar Jadhav, Harshad Khadiwale and Rohit Motwani showing promise while still new to domestic cricket and left-arm spinner Akshay Darekar, one of the revelations of the last Ranji season who also impressed during the India A tour to the West Indies, in their line-up, Maharashtra have reasons to remain confident.
One source of relief for them will be that Praveen Kumar, UP's premier medium-pacer, is out of this game with an injury. But they still have the challenge of facing an accurate Bhuvneshwar Kumar, an on-song Imtiaz Ahmed, an eager Sudeep Tyagi, and the legbreaks of Piyush Chawla.
Chawla, who was not considered for the first two Tests against England since he was recovering from a hairline crack in his right thumb, has been passed fit for the game. Chawla bowled for well over half an hour and then had a long knock with the bat as well, finishing the session with "almost zero" discomfort.
If Chawla does trouble Maharashtra's batsmen, then the sarcastic official would perhaps ponder why he didn't act on his dog-parade joke.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo