Yuvraj, Harbhajan boost for Punjab
The hosts are the finalists of last season's Ranji Trophy. The visitors have been one of the most consistent teams in the last three years and are one of the few all-round units in this year's edition. Instead of being a high-intensity affair, however, Maharashtra's Group B match against Punjab at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium at Gahunje could end up as a walk in the park for the visiting side.
If the current form of both teams isn't enough to bill Punjab as firm favourites in the match, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh's availability for the game means Punjab could walk away with at least three - if not six - points by Wednesday. More than their opponents, the 22-yard strip at Gahunje could emerge as the biggest hindrance for the visitors.
The Gahunje pitch has a reputation of being a flat track. Though four of the 10 matches hosted at the stadium so far have produced results, the slow pitch often forces teams to play for the first-innings lead. Maharashtra's season-opener against Odisha was played on a dull strip two weeks ago and, after that game, BCCI-appointed curator Atul Bedade was asked to advise on making a result-oriented pitch.
Though the track had a live grass cover on Saturday, Punjab aren't expecting a lively pitch. "We have heard that it's a slow wicket, just like the practice wickets we got," Punjab coach, Bhupinder Singh sr, said. "We will try to press the button from the very beginning and force a result but if the wicket gets real flat with nothing to offer for seamers or spinners, it would become a first-innings game."
The former India pacer and national selector will be banking on his stalwarts to deliver and help Punjab continue their good run at the start of the season. Harbhajan had missed both games so far due to a viral infection while Yuvraj preferred to rest for the last match after helping Punjab beat neighbours Haryana in the opening round with a century in the second innings.
With young captain, Mandeep Singh, doing well, Harbhajan had been reluctant to take over but Bhupinder clarified that the offspinner will lead the team since he has been appointed captain for the season.
Apart from Harbhajan and Yuvraj, Punjab will bring in Uday Kaul for his first game of the season. The three players will replace Taruwar Kohli, Sarabjeet Ladda and Manan Vohra; Vohra has been released for an Under-23 game to regain form.
Maharashtra, on the other hand, haven't had an ideal start. They had to be content with the first-innings' lead against Odisha in their opening round and then suffered a loss in a grudge game in Haryana. If Maharashtra have to repeat last season's heroics and justify their promotion from Group C, the onus will be on Harshad Khadiwale and Kedar Jadhav to amass runs and Samad Fallah to lead the seam attack.
Both Khadiwale and Jadhav scored 1000-plus in 2013-14, paving the way for Maharashtra's journey from Group C to the knock-outs and then to the final against Karnataka. Rohit Motwani, the captain, said the team was banking on last season's performance to get themselves charged for the battle against Punjab.
"We have done it last year. We beat big teams like Mumbai and Bengal before losing to Karnataka in the final, so there is no reason why we can't do it again," Motwani said.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo