Mumbai underdogs against strong Baroda
Even after the Baroda players had finished their pre-match training and team meeting and were relaxing in the dining area, the Mumbai players were slogging it out in an extended fielding session at the tranquil Moti Bagh stadium in Vadodara.
Not always do Mumbai players go through a training session more rigorous than their opponents on the eve of a Ranji Trophy match. Not often do Mumbai enter a Ranji game as underdogs either. But this season is different. On the eve of their penultimate Group A encounter, rather than being the formidable force that Mumbai have always been, the men with the lion crest appear to be underdogs for the clash against hosts Baroda.
Baroda will enter the game as favourites not only because of the presence of seasoned campaigners in their ranks but also due to the form of both the teams. While Mumbai have only Wasim Jaffer to look up to when it comes to experience, Baroda are boasted by the presence of the trio of Irfan Pathan, Yusuf Pathan and Munaf Patel, with Munaf having joined the squad after missing the last game due to his sister's wedding.
When it comes to form, Baroda couldn't have asked for a better time to take on Mumbai. Baroda are entering the game after garnering 13 points in their last three games, including a bonus-point win against Uttar Pradesh and the first-innings lead against defending champions Karnataka. Mumbai, on the other hand, conceded the first-innings lead to Madhya Pradesh and then suffered their first innings defeat in 64 years, against Tamil Nadu last week.
The defeat turned out to be the trigger for Suryakumar Yadav to resign from the captaincy mid-season. It prompted the selectors to thrust the captaincy on the shoulders of Aditya Tare, who has already been performing the dual role of wicketkeeper and opening batsman. The change of guard seems to have brought the much-needed wave of optimism as the Mumbai camp appeared to be a close-knit unit on Wednesday.
While Tare attributed the change in atmosphere to the "professional" approach of the Mumbai cricketers, he didn't agree that his side would enter the game as underdogs. "I don't think we are the underdogs or we consider ourselves lesser than anyone else," Tare said. "For us, every year we are expected to win the Ranji Trophy. Anything less than that is a failure. That's what the legacy of Mumbai cricket is and I am proud to be a part of it. No doubt we haven't had a great season but we will try and turn it around."
Tare and his teammates know that they have an enormous task of winning both their remaining league games to keep their campaign alive. They were not at all surprised to see a spinning track at Moti Bagh, considering their meek surrender in Chennai on a turner. Mumbai have called up left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh after the left-arm duo of Iqbal Abdulla and Vishal Dabholkar failed to deliver.
Harmeet, the star of India's Under-19 World Cup campaign in 2012, was dropped from Mumbai's Under-23 squad due to poor form earlier in the season. But with the first-choice spinners failing to impress, the selectors have turned to him.
Baroda, on the other hand, appear to be a settled unit now after starting the season on a shaky note. The new captain-coach combo of Aditya Waghmode and Tushar Arothe took their time to find the best combination. The presence of several allrounders has given the side an edge over their opponents in the latter half of the league stage. Waghmode admitted that the presence of stalwarts like the Pathan brothers and Munaf had made his job of leading the side easier.
If the veteran players thrive at home, Baroda will surely live up to their tag of favourites and not only book their place in the knockouts stage but also put an end to Mumbai's hopes of regaining the trophy.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo