TN batsmen face UP bowling test
Meerut may have a reputation as a crowded industrial place, but the sprawling Victoria Park adds a much-needed expanse of green to the town. It houses the Bhamashah Stadium, which is surrounded by more open spaces for Meerut's young cricketers to train in, much like the city's two most famous cricketers, Praveen Kumar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, did over the past few years.
Several knots of cricketers - in full whites and with proper equipment - are practising there on the day before the Ranji match between Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. A short walk past them takes you to the main ground, where next to a whitewashed wall that serves as one of the sightscreens, several dozen spectators are watching the two Ranji teams train.
This is the biggest match of the year for Meerut, and signs of that are all around. The ground itself is surrounded by temporary billboards, advertising everything from real estate to fertilisers, and also includes tributes to Sachin Tendulkar as well as notable Meerut cricketers. The boards denoting the scorers box, the media enclosure and the teams' dressing rooms, all sport a distinctive logo with the words 'Ranji Trophy cricket match'.
A wide, white, single-storeyed building - the O'Donnell pavilion, named after a former principal of Meerut College, which owns the ground - is a hub of activity as the organisers try to ensure everything is in order for the match.
Just ahead of the pavilion, some of the UP players are practising taking high catches. It's a nippy, winter morning and the cold isn't making training easy. "Lag rahi hain yaar (it's stinging)," says one of the fielders, wringing his hands after snaffling a skier. The weather will take even more adjusting to for the visitors, with maximum temperatures in Tamil Nadu still well above 30 degrees.
The match itself is being billed as a clash between UP's strong bowling and Tamil Nadu's formidable batting. Tamil Nadu have scored in excess of 450 in the first innings of both their matches this season, with B Aparajith and S Badrinath both having scored double-hundreds, and UP captain Piyush Chawla knew what his side was up against. "They have got one of the best batting sides and we have got one of the better bowling sides in Ranji Trophy circuit," Chawla said. "It should be a good contest."
It doesn't help UP, though, that both of Meerut's finest bowlers are not available for this game. Praveen is out with a shoulder injury and Bhuvneshwar is away on national duty.
Chawla and his bowlers are coming off a rough game in Rajkot, where Saurashtra piled up a mammoth total. Chawla bowled 51.5 overs in one innings. Little wonder then that the only time he got animated, during a short press conference, was when he spoke about the state of pitches in the country.
"Wickets are quite flat these days, and if it is not flat, then it is seaming, so it becomes really difficult for the spin bowlers. Even if you see the list of highest wicket-takers in the last few years in Ranji Trophy, you won't find many spinners in that, hardly one in top 10 or something. So that is a challenge, for a spinner to come on these sort of wickets and bowl your best and try to pick up something out of these nothing tracks."
Neither captain wanted to elaborate on how they thought the Meerut track would behave, but the surface generally favoured quick bowlers in the three matches held here over the past four years.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo