Fog, biting cold add to Mohali challenge
Match factsJanuary 18-22, Mohali
Start time 9.30am (4.00am GMT)
With an astonishing 38 points in the league phase, Karnataka are clearly the stand-out team of the season and favourites to win the title, especially after the early exit of defending champions Mumbai. With a clutch of youngsters such as KL Rahul, HS Sharath and Shreyas Gopal impressing in the early days of their career, and a core of experienced and proven performers in Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun, Manish Pandey and Robin Uthappa, Karnataka are a well-balanced outfit which has put together six straight victories. While the batting and fast bowling is formidable, the only real question mark is over their spinners.
Punjab have a man with over 400 Test wickets filling the spinner's spot. Harbhajan Singh will complement a strong pace attack, which includes Sandeep Sharma, Siddarth Kaul and Manpreet Gony. Their concern will be about getting some consistency in the batting. It might be because they have played on several spicy tracks this season, but in six of the nine matches they have been bowled out for less than 200 in the first innings. They have batsmen capable of playing the big innings though: Mandeep Singh hit a game-changing century in the second innings of the quarterfinals, Jiwanjot Singh can boast of one of the innings of the season with a 147 against Delhi, Yuvraj Singh is out of form but has repeatedly shown his penchant for the big stage.
Both teams will keep an eye as much on the weather as the opposition. Heavy fog has lead to most Chandigarh-bound flights being cancelled in the past few days, as is common during the coldest days of the north Indian winter. Besides fog, some play could also be lost due to rain, with mild showers predicted through the week. To make things more uncomfortable, especially for the Karnataka players, temperatures are expected to plunge as low as six degrees, about 10 degrees lesser than the minimum in Bangalore this week.
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Karnataka had a settled batting unit for several seasons, till they began experimenting last year. Rahul was one of those who got an opportunity, and this season he has cemented his place at the top of the order. Scores of 158, 67, 29, 98, 29, 92, 25*, 133, 32, 0, 92* in Karnataka's six successive wins have pitchforked him to third in the run-getters chart. A big performance in the semi-finals will only add to the buzz around him.
Another youngster who has grabbed this headlines this season is Punjab's fast bowler Sandeep Sharma. With 35 wickets at 22.60, he's been the team's most successful bowler, and among the top ten bowlers of the season. He's already earned a place in a second-string India A side in 2013, but this season's success following on the 41 wickets he captured in 2012-13 will push him closer to bigger honours.
Punjab are likely to miss one of their key bowlers this season, VRV Singh, due to a fever. That should open up a spot for quick bowler Siddarth Kaul, who missed the quarterfinal clash against J&K.
Punjab (squad) Harbhajan Singh (capt), Manan Vohra, Jiwanjot Singh, Mandeep Singh, Taruwar Kohli, Gurkeerat Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Rajwinder Singh, Gitansh Khera (wk), Siddarth Kaul, Manpreet Gony, Sandeep Sharma, VRV Singh, Sunny Sohal, Jaskaran Singh, Uday Kaul (wk)
Karnataka are missing two players who injured themselves in the quarter-final: fast bowler Sharath hurt his shoulder while fielding and batsman R Samarth fractured his finger while attempting a catch. Their places have been taken by left-arm medium-pacer S Aravind and batsman Mayank Agarwal. Given the seamer-friendly nature of the Mohali track, Karnataka might be tempted to go in with allrounder Shreyas Gopal as their lone spinner, ahead of the ineffective specialists Abrar Kazi and KP Appanna.
Karnataka (squad) Vinay Kumar (capt) , Robin Uthappa, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Manish Pandey, Karun Nair, CM Gautam, Shreyas Gopal, Abhimanyu Mithun, Ronit More, Abrar Kazi, KP Appanna , Ganesh Satish, Amit Verma, S Aravind
- Karnataka are one short of the Delhi's Ranji record of seven straight wins, set in 1974-75. Mumbai managed six consecutive Ranji wins on two occasions, in 1972-73 and in 1999-00.
- Karnataka's wicketkeepr CM Gautam has 33 dismissals this season, two less than the leaders Andhra's KS Bharth and Maharashtra's Rohit Motwani.
- There were five triple centuries last season; there have been none so far this season.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo