Rampant Punjab to test strengthened Mumbai
On Saturday, Harbhajan Singh and Ajinkya Rahane will have turned from colleagues to competitors in less than 48 hours. From being part of India's bench in Kolkata, the duo will go to playing playing the Ranji Trophy Group A tie between hosts Mumbai and Punjab. This will be at the Wankhede Stadium, the same venue where they were part of India's ten-wicket mauling by England less than two weeks ago.
After having been in the harsh spotlight, Harbhajan, the Punjab captain, along with Rahane - Mumbai batting's backbone for the last five years - will enjoy the quaint set-up of a Ranji tie, with hardly any spectators and only a handful of journalists watching the game.
While Harbhajan will look to extend Punjab's dream run (they have qualified for the knockouts with three games remaining in the group stage), Rahane will hope to bolster Mumbai as they bid for their first victory of the season in their fifth game.
"I just wanted to come back and play some game. It's important to stay in touch," Harbhajan said. "In Kolkata, the sun goes down so quickly. By 4pm it's very dark, so you don't get any practice if you're sitting out. It's good to be coming over and bowl a few overs before I join the [Test] team in Nagpur. It'll be good to bowl few overs, pick up some wickets and score runs, hopefully, and join team again for the last Test."
Even without their regular captain Harbhajan, Punjab have been the highlight of the season so far. Led by Mandeep Singh, soon to turn 21, in four of their five games so far. Two of these wins have included bonus points. No wonder, then, that they find themselves at the top of the points table with 29 points - 18 more than the second-placed Madhya Pradesh, with Mumbai in third with 10 points.
But that doesn't mean Punjab won't take the Mumbai game seriously. "It's a bit challenging for us after doing well in Mohali, where the bounce is slightly less than what you get here in Mumbai," Harbhajan, who has taken over from Mandeep, said. "Doing well in Mumbai is always good. Mumbai have always been a strong side, so scoring runs and picking up wickets here will definitely boost the confidence going into the next round."
While their results might not have been similar, Mumbai, just like Punjab, have had two captains so far this season, albeit for completely different reasons. Ajit Agarkar, who strained his thigh during their season-opener against Railways, was sidelined for the previous three games, has now taken over the mantle from Rohit Sharma, who had an indifferent run at the helm.
Agarkar's return and Rahane's availability means Mumbai go in with a full-strength squad for only the second time this season. After Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan were available for the 39-times champions' opening game of the season, neither the senior duo nor Rahane were available for Mumbai due to Test commitments. Wasim Jaffer too missed the first three games of the season while on pilgrimage, and Dhawal Kulkarni missed a game due to viral infection, so Mumbai have not had a settled XI.
"It helps if there is a little bit of continuity," Agarkar said. "We should have probably got over the line in the last game; it was unfortunate, but we've got another chance. We've got four internationals in our top five. We can't ask for a better combination as a batting unit. But again, we will have to play well to get a positive result."
Agarkar admitted that Harbhajan's return could further lift the already successful Punjab: "Any international player who is currently with the [national] team coming back to play for his state team is a big boost. A guy who has got 400 Test wickets is a big player. [But] we will just worry about what we need to do to play well."
If Mumbai indeed raise the level of their game, then they could end up being the first team to really challenge Punjab this season.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo