Mumbai, Vidarbha in first ever face-off
The last time Sairaj Bahutule entered the visitors' dressing room at Wankhede Stadium, he helped Maharashtra beat Mumbai. Eight years later, Bahutule, a former Mumbai captain who led the side to two Ranji Trophy titles, once again returns to the Wankhede as part of the visiting squad, this time as the Vidarbha coach.
Despite hoping for a result like in 2005-06, Bahutule knows a contest between Vidarbha and defending champions Mumbai is like a David v Goliath fight. Though these two teams have never faced off in the Ranji Trophy, Mumbai are favourites.
Vidarbha have qualified for the Ranji knockouts only three times since playing their maiden season in 1957-58, with a quarterfinal appearance in 1995-96 being their best performance. Mumbai, on the other hand, have more titles than all the other teams put together.
Bahutule admitted that most of his players would be looking to learn from their experiences over the next four days in Mumbai. "Skills-wise Mumbai are far better than us," he said. "Vidarbha are a developing team and I have a lot of belief in the players. They are a lot more hard working and sincere in their effort.
"Obviously they don't play a lot of local cricket compared to those in Mumbai, so they don't play in different situations all the time. Mumbai cricket is all about playing in different situations, different wickets all over the city. Nagpur is very limited in that sense, so we're looking forward to it. For any team to play against Mumbai is a big occasion and we're ready."
Vidarbha, who are sixth in the Group A points table, won't have the advantage of surprise either, because Mumbai coach Sulakshan Kulkarni was an integral part of Vidarbha's development plans for three years before leaving at the start of the 2011-12 season. Kulkarni said Mumbai were not taking Vidarbha lightly.
"You should never underestimate any team," he said. "They're doing well. They have scored an outright win and are placed mid-table. I know the Vidarbha players well. I was coaching them for three years. They've been doing well and they've been improving steadily. They've improved a lot under the new coach and there is no question of us taking them lightly."
Vidarbha will look to their strike bowler Umesh Yadav for inroads into the formidable Mumbai batting line-up, which has been strengthened by the return of Ajinkya Rahane. Yadav, Rahane and Mumbai captain Zaheer Khan will use the match to gear up for their upcoming tour of South Africa. While the focus will be on the three internationals, Bahutule hopes the other Vidarbha players will make the most of the opportunity of playing the strongest team on the circuit.
"It's a fantastic experience for them. They may have seen some of the players on screen like Zaheer, Wasim and Ajinkya and now to play against them in a game means a lot," he said. "Our strength is we play as a unit. Whatever limitations we have, we try and make the most out of whatever roles are given to each individual."
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo