On tranquil neutral ground, J&K face their toughest challenge yet
As soon as you enter the Laxmi Vilas Palace estate in Baroda, the thick cover of green cuts you off from sounds of the city. The dirt road that resembles a national park track winds past a palace, a golf course and a museum before opening up into a lush expanse called the Moti Baug cricket ground.
A line of trees circumscribes the outfield and the chirping of birds is all you hear. If the calmness of the place still doesn't hit you, there is also a mazaar (masoleum) next to the newly-built dressing rooms. Peacocks can be spotted and cranes have flown in from somewhere north, just like teams from Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir, the only ones playing the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals at a neutral venue. No fog here. No haze either. It's a tranquil setting for a five-day match.
J&K's entry into the knockouts was anything but tranquil. Goa's win against Andhra on New Year 's Day threatened to pip J&K to the second quarterfinal berth but Parvez Rasool and Co worked out their calculations and produced the goods the next day, to beat Goa in a photo finish - by a thousandth of a point.
"It's even more important to build [on the positives] as this is a good Punjab side and then we will be in Pool B next year," Rasool said. "Everyone's contributing. Three or four of our bowlers have more than 20 wickets, some batsmen have scored more than 350 runs. In the past, only one or two players used to perform and that didn't really help the team. But this time, everyone is in good touch."
The challenge for J&K in Moti Baug is not easy. Punjab, who finished second in a tough draw ahead of teams like Delhi and Mumbai, are loaded with experience and talent.
"It's a quarterfinal," Harbhajan Singh, who returns as the captain of the side, said. "We have played some good cricket and we don't want to look at the opposition, who they are, where they come from. They have reached this level, so they must have done something good. Whether it's J&K or Mumbai, you have to play well to beat any team in this competition."
Harbhajan sounded confident of his team's chances given their all-round strength. On a pitch that is likely to aid seamers, Punjab will have the services of Manpreet Gony and the returning VRV Singh while their batting is solid with the presence of Jiwanjot Singh, Manan Vohra, Mandeep Singh and Yuvraj Singh.
"We wanted to give him [VRV] a break, because he was coming from a major back surgery," Harbhajan said. "So we didn't want to put too much load on him. But from here onwards, we need him more often and he will be playing tomorrow. So is Gony, who was rested in the last game.
"It's great to see guys like Manan Vohra and Jiwanjot backing up their performances from last year, especially Jiwanjot. Manan Vohra is one of the top opening batsman I have seen in the recent past; he is not afraid to hit the ball and he has a good technique too. It was quite a challenging wicket where he scored 187 (against Jharkhand). Sandeep Sharma is another who has taken a lot of wickets. I hope they play for the country in the years to come."
Harbhajan himself hasn't played too many matches - in the three games this season, he has picked up 18 wickets - but wants to make an impression. Faith, as the tattoo on his right hand says, is keeping him going. "Every game is an opportunity to do something really special, to keep knocking on the door," he said. "Hopefully, I'll get where I want to be."
For the next few days though, Moti Baug is all that will matter for Harbhajan. Mohammad Azharuddin once smacked the then fastest ODI century here, but in recent past, the pitch has been more of a bowlers' haven. All three matches this season had results; in one of them, as many as 35 wickets fell in two days. There is a provision of a sixth day to get an outright result for the quarter-final but it's hard to see the match lasting that long.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo