Mumbai face tall challenge at home
At the start of the season, the Mumbai-Karnataka clash towards the end of the league stage was billed as one of the most high-profile face-offs of the Ranji Trophy season. It was expected to be an intense affair with lots to play for and it still is, but only for one team.
While Karnataka are assured of finishing at the top of Group A, Mumbai's qualification for the quarter-finals depends on the outcome of the match - and that of other games in the group.
The mood was reflected during teams' training at the Wankhede Stadium on the eve of the game. While the Mumbai camp slogged out for a good three hours, Karnataka had light nets. However, Karnataka captain Vinay Kumar, who is favourite to defend the Ranji title, has given his team a new challenge ahead of the quarter-final.
"We are treating this as a pre-quarter final game and will try to give our best and win the game," Vinay told reporters on Thursday. "Beating Mumbai is always special, so confidence level will be high. Playing in Wankhede in itself is a great opportunity for most of the players and playing against Mumbai and performing against Mumbai is treated as a special thing."
Karnataka have looked a settled unit right through the season, with the core remaining intact since the opening round. The key to their success has been the ability to back each other. It has reflected in the numbers. While none of their batsmen feature in top-ten of the season's highest run-getters, they have managed to put up good totals consistently.
It has meant the pace triumvirate of Vinay, Abhimanyu Mithun and Sreenath Aravind, who have shared 84 wickets, have had much-needed support. With the Wankhede track likely to assist spinners - as asked by the home team - one of the three might be rested.
Mumbai, on the other hand, have kept themselves afloat, largely thanks to individual brilliance. A disconcerted change room - with infighting among key players of the team - had thrown the team off the track in the middle part of the season. It was only in their last game in Vadodara that the team appeared to gel as a unit, with the captaincy baton having been passed to Aditya Tare from Suryakumar Yadav.
Tare not only handled the bowlers well but also led from the front with a responsible century in the first innings. While he would expect the same of himself, Shreyas Iyer and Yadav, all of whom have been among runs, the key for Mumbai would be the bowling department's performance.
Mumbai have fared miserably in their two home games so far, losing to Jammu & Kashmir in their season-opener and conceding a first-innings lead to Madhya Pradesh last month. If Shardul Thakur and Co can rise up to the occasion, then Mumbai can hope to make a case for featuring in the last eight.
There is a slim chance of Mumbai going through with only the first innings lead, but captain Tare said they were not even considering that option since "it's impossible for three other teams to fail". Instead, Tare said his team will go for "six points".
At the end of the game, even six points may not be enough for Mumbai. But the home team knows that it will be a Brobdingnagian achievement for them to earn those six points against the defending champions.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo