Pankaj eyes Ranji qualification
The Maharashtra Cricket Association's cricket ground off the Mumbai-Pune expressway keeps all its plastic fold-up seats wrapped under thick plastic covers to avoid de-colouration. Not many grounds take the upkeep of their spectator seats that seriously. Those covers work perfectly to keep the sun and rain out, but do not have much chance against the heavy leather ball repeatedly thudding into it.
The batsmen from both Rajasthan and Maharastra regularly smacked the spinners into the stands from their respective practice pitches either side of the main strip, almost as if each hit was a pre-match show of strength. Or maybe both teams realised that spinners would present the best run-scoring opportunities on a pitch that preserved its olive-green appearance a day before their crucial Group B match.
Pankaj Singh and Rohit Motwani, the two captains, both conceded that seamers were likely to play a key role in Pune, and with the weather predicted to hold the chill throughout the week, spin is not expected to come into the picture till about the last day. Rajasthan wouldn't mind as the conditions do not appear too far-off from the ones in Jaipur, where they handed a heavy nine-wicket loss to a strong Punjab side to revive their sagging Ranji campaign.
"The game against Punjab was a do-or-die match, because had we lost that one, our only goal would have been to avoid relegation," Pankaj said. "But after playing positively in that match, we are alive in the tournament again. That was the match in which we had to move forward.
"You always want to start the season by thinking about knockouts, but a practical way of thinking is to say don't get relegated," he said. "It's the first time in four-five years that we are playing without any professionals in our support staff and before the season, a lot of things happened. So the first goal for me as a captain was to avoid relegation.
"Now things are looking a little up with the kind of cricket we are playing and we have a chance of qualification for knockouts. We have to take it match by match from here. If we do well here, we can start thinking about qualifying."
Like Rajasthan, Maharashtra had a poor start to the season, including a loss against Punjab at home, after the highs of last year. Till last week, both teams were lingering near the bottom of the Group B table, at the seventh and eighth places. But just like Rajasthan, Maharashtra turned it around by ruthlessly beating Saurashtra by an innings in Rajkot.
That win was built upon a solid team batting performance and Akshay Darekar's ten-wicket match haul. Spin may be pushed to the back bench in this game, conceded Motwani, but added that Maharashtra's seam bowlers have been picking up wickets and were excited to play a more central role in the home game. "Fallah was my Man of the Match," Yuvraj Singh had said after the bowler had rattled Punjab with 8 for 38. Punjab won that game by three wickets, but Motwani said the morale was on a high after the Saurashtra win.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo