Weakened Mumbai in fight for survival
Irrespective of whether they are playing at home or away, Mumbai usually appear the stronger and more confident unit when the two sides train on the eve of a Ranji Trophy match. Sunday was definitely an exception to the rule.
While the Gujarat squad was relaxed during its training at the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Stadium in Valsad, a quaint town almost midway between the traditional home grounds of both the teams, Wasim Jaffer's Mumbai outfit was far from a confident lot. The rhythm during the pre-match training was somehow missing. One felt that on the back of a mediocre run in the last three games, Mumbai was the side under pressure.
The fragility was so obvious that Gujarat captain Parthiv Patel pronounced what every opposition captain avoids even thinking, let alone speaking, ahead of their match against the 40-time Ranji champions. "Obviously we are confident that we can defeat this Mumbai unit," Patel said.
Tremors in the Mumbai camp were understandable as they enter the game as one of the most inexperienced Mumbai units. Barring stand-in captain Jaffer, not one player has played two full seasons for the outfit. Sachin Tendulkar has retired. Zaheer Khan, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane have been donning the national colours. Abhishek Nayar and Dhawal Kulkarni have been sidelined due to injuries. All this culminated in Mumbai, who were topping the group charts at the midway stage when Zaheer was leading from the front, being far from assured of a place in the knockout stage.
Going into the last league round, Mumbai have to first attain at least a first-innings lead, and then, depending on how Punjab are faring against Jharkhand, will have to determine whether an outright victory is a must for them to progress to the quarter-finals. Gujarat, on the other hand, find themselves in a more favourable scenario. All they require is to avoid an outright loss and they will be ensured of a place in the last eight. That, however, is slightly tricky considering the pitch in Valsad has recently been result-oriented. Only one of the last five matches played at the ground has been a draw.
Mumbai's list of injuries got bigger on the eve of the match as Siddhesh Lad, who has scored three fifties in his debut season, suffered a suspected disc injury while playing football during the team's warm-up and was ruled out. Lad's unavailability would further unsettle the combination of the visiting side.
Gujarat, on the other hand, appears to be a far more settled team than the visitors, who have tried a whopping 22 players in the season so far. The trend of results at this venue is likely to continue. If Mumbai are to avoid being on the wrong side of it, which would all but put an end to their title defence, they will have to get the better of Gujarat's blend of youth and seasoned campaigners.
While Parthiv has been at his best with the bat, Venugopal Rao and Rakesh Dhurv have also been contributing handsomely all through the season. It has resulted in the job of the home-grown youngsters being made easier, and most of them have justified the faith that has been shown in them for a better part of the past two seasons. If they continue with the good work, they will not only keep their Ranji campaign alive, but also oust the defending champions from the tournament.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo