Mumbai's missing stars give Jharkhand opening
This is a hopeless mismatch, going by reputation. Forty-time champions against a side promoted from the bottom group. This is a hopeless mismatch even on current form. Mumbai have three outright wins this Ranji season, and lead Group A with 19 points from four games. Jharkhand are last with three from five, and, as their captain Shahbaz Nadeem conceded, have little hope of making the knockouts.
But forget reputation for a moment, delve deeper into Mumbai's matches this season, and suddenly, this does not appear a mismatch.Sachin Tendulkar had to bat five hours in Lahli to prevent his domestic farewell from ending in a party for Haryana. Zaheer Khan delivered one of his bursts-out-of-nowhere to deny Delhi the first innings lead, and claimed 16 wickets in four games before boarding the flight to South Africa. Ajinkya Rahane helped shut Vidarbha out with a big hundred before doing the same.
Dhawal Kulkarni is still out injured. Kaustubh Pawar, who can be relied upon to blunt the new ball, has been dropped for poor form. Mumbai's spin stocks are at an all-time low, to the extent they have had to turn to 42-year-old Pravin Tambe on the basis of his club and Twenty20 franchise performances. Their seam attack is so short on experience they are happy Shardul Thakur, all of six first-class games old, was sharp in the nets today. Their first-choice spinner Vishal Dabholkar, albeit in superb form, has played two more matches than Thakur.
Nadeem, also Jharkhand's lead spinner, will be playing his 50th first-class game. Jharkhand also have the quick Varun Aaron, who kept hitting batsmen on the gloves and thigh pads during practice without extending himself. Rahul Shukla can be pretty awkward to handle, and Saurabh Tiwary has six fifties in eight innings. Jharkhand's worry is that the rest of the batsmen combined have scored only ten half-centuries in the season, and there have been no hundreds.
"We are a very good side on paper but we have not been delivering," Nadeem said. "That is the problem we are facing. It has been the batting. Our bowlers are doing well. If we can post around 350-400… our bowling is strong."
The only time Jharkhand played Mumbai after separating from Bihar was in February 2011, when they beat them, albeit in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy. Nadeem was reminded of that game, and promptly replied that he had played a crucial role in the victory. "We are excited to be playing Mumbai. We have come here to give them a good fight. We played against them three years ago and won," Nadeem said. "I was the Man of the Match. But the one-day format is completely different to the days format. But it also does not mean that we cannot beat them in the days format. We have quality players such as Varun, Saurabh, (Ishank) Jaggi, two-three other players as well. We had five players in last year's Duleep Trophy (for East Zone). It is just that we are not delivering."
Abhishek Nayar, leading Mumbai in the absence of Zaheer and Rohit Sharma, was asked the inevitable question about how Mumbai would cope in the absence of so many first-choice players. "No one is really worried about who is there and who is not," Nayar said. "We have all accepted it over a period of time. It is challenging with or without the seniors. Ranji Trophy is challenging. Nothing changes that. We have two or three new faces, but everyone else has been part of the team."
Nayar suggested that not having big players could actually work in Mumbai's favour. Having bigger reputations around meant increased pressure to win, he said. "Expectations are still there, but it also a chance for everyone to enjoy themselves."
Tackling the Jharkhand pace attack would be a challenge, Nayar admitted, especially on a Wankhede pitch he felt was seamer-friendly. "Most of the teams we have played this year have had decent fast bowlers. A lot of the pitches we have played on have been good seaming conditions or good turning conditions, not like the regular flat track we played on last year."
Unexpected, unseasonal showers in southern Mumbai yesterday morning have added another dimension. Some of the practice pitches were still damp and the ball kicked on occasion; the match wicket wasn't watered too much. Nayar said they would wait till the morning of the game to see how much the track had dried and would then decide whether to play a third seamer.
Nadeem's assessment of the surface was far removed from Nayar's. "It looks like a flat wicket," Nadeem said. "Does not have too much of grass and it is bound properly. It looks like a batting wicket." Opinions as far apart from each other as Mumbai and Jharkhand are on the points table. Still does not appear a mismatch though.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo