Mumbai's experience v Madhya Pradesh's steel
Three seasons ago, Harpreet Singh, all of 21 and trying to establish himself in first-class cricket, had an opportunity to help Madhya Pradesh clinch their first-ever win in the Ranji Trophy over Mumbai in Indore. Chasing 311 in 78 overs, MP were powered by a Jalaj Saxena century before a middle-order wobble left the game on an even keel. Harpreet dug his way in to a fighting 38, but lack of experience, rush of blood, and constant pressure exerted by the wily Zaheer Khan consumed him. MP collapsed in a heap after his dismissal to lose by seven runs; the win rejuvenated Mumbai, who would go on to lift their 40th title that season.
A lot has changed since. Mumbai have undergone a transformation with a number of veterans paving way for the younger brigade to take them forward. As a result, they are still searching for their 41st title, having bowed out of the quarter-finals and semi-finals against Maharashtra and Karnataka over the last two seasons. The pressure of having to force the pace will fall on Mumbai as they take on MP in the semi-final in Cuttack starting Saturday.
There are those, particularly in Gujarat, who feel MP were lucky to get this far. With net run rate, and not quotient which was earlier the norm to decide the qualifier in case of tied points, being preferred, MP snuck in by the thinnest of margins. But after crushing Bengal by 355 runs in the quarter-final at the Brabourne Stadium, MP have quickly managed to shift focus from their qualification to their on-field performances.
Mumbai, looking to rediscover their hunger to win titles for fun, have played an aggressive brand of cricket that has been a sharp contrast to their khadoos method over the years. The ruthlessness and push to register outright wins and not just sit on a lead has added to the aura around a team that has been powered by the belligerence of Shreyas Iyer, and core group led by Suryakumar Yadav, Shardul Thakur and Aditya Tare, who is set to return after missing the last game because of a finger injury.
Iyer leads the run charts by some distance with 1056 runs in 15 innings at 70.40. The talking point has not been about his penchant for runs alone, but the manner in which he has accrued them. A strike-rate of 93.20, three centuries, including a double, and five fifties in his second season to go with his impressive tally of 809 runs in 2014-15, has marked his coming of age. In comparison, Akhil Herwadkar's approach has been slow, but equally rewarding. With 863 runs, he is second on the season run charts, but unlike Iyer, the focus here has been on crease occupation, a method that has allayed top-order fears, paving way for the experience of Tare, the captain, Suryakumar and Abhishek Nayar.
Unlike Mumbai, MP have had to rely on equal contributions from their top order. With a century and a fifty in the quarter-final, Harpreet is clearly the form batsman and their leading run-getter with 609 runs, while Rajat Patidar, Jalaj and Aditya Shrivastava have all scored over 500 runs. That Naman Ojha and Devendra Bundela, their most experienced batsmen, have not hit peak form yet despite delivering consistent scores could be a cause for optimism.
While Mumbai clearly have the X-factor with the bat, they will be without the services of their most experienced seamer Dhawal Kulkarni, who is recovering from a niggle, which means Shardul Thakur will lead the pace attack, with Balwinder Sandhu and Nayar to complement him. Mumbai also have the option of picking either Vishal Dabholkar or Iqbal Abdulla, or even both depending on the nature of the surface.
MP's bowling stocks have relied around their spinners on dry turners at home. Jalaj is just two short of becoming only the second bowler after Shahbaz Nadeem to take 50 wickets this season, while Ankit Sharma, the left-arm spinner, has held the other end up superbly over the course of the season, the reward being 33 scalps. With Ishwar Pandey's confidence having received a fillip following an eight-wicket haul in the quarter-final, Mumbai would do well to not underestimate an unheralded bowling attack.
Mumbai hold the aces on the face of it, but MP, who are happy to wear the underdogs tag, could take a huge step towards title aspirations for the first time in over a decade and a half if they manage to take down the giants.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo