Saurashtra face Mumbai colossus in bid for first title
The only time Saurashtra have had a shot at Indian domestic cricket's biggest prize before this was three seasons ago. But they spent more time plotting and planning than they did in the middle; being blown away by Mumbai in three days at the Wankhede Stadium.
If Saurashtra wanted a taste of what to expect in the grand finale this time around, it came last week in Cuttack. The might of Mumbai, the 40-time champions who have almost won more titles than the rest of India combined, was in full view against Madhya Pradesh, the "underdogs", who were buried under an avalanche of runs.
Therefore, on paper, Mumbai should be the runaway winners, giving not even an inch to their opponents, who admitted to having a tinge of "nervous excitement". But, cricket is played out in the middle; Saurashtra will vouch for it.
"A lot of people asked me about what happened in the last final in 2012-13, but we shouldn't forget that the last time we played them in the final, Sachin Tendulkar was playing along with Ajit Agarkar and Wasim Jaffer," Shitanshu Kotak, the Saurashtra coach, said. "They definitely have good players in the side but those three, I don't think you can match them. We have good a good side, one that can match them in every aspect."
But that Saurashtra have a herculean task at hand would be an understatement. Since 1990-91, Mumbai haven't lost any of the 10 finals they have played. But this one comes after a rebuilding phase and points to a resurgence that has been led by a young group. Mumbai's fresh approach, unlike in the past where the focus was to grind the opposition down, has been fuelled by the solidity of Akhil Herwadkar and the belligerence of Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav.
But Saurashtra, through their exploits which began in group C and particularly in their quarter-final and semi-final, have proved that they are more than just a one-trick pony. While Ravindra Jadeja was central to their plans on dry turners in the first half of the season, the pacers, particularly Jaydev Unadkat - who seems to have added a few yards of pace to his bowling along with variations in length - have stepped up on more even tracks.
Now, with Cheteshwar Pujara and Sheldon Jackson hitting top form towards the business end of the competition, the all-round depth in Saurashtra's ranks is unmistakable, even though their big-match temperament hasn't entirely been tested yet.
"There's no doubt that Pujara will be a big threat," Aditya Tare, the Mumbai captain, said. "He is an excellent long-form player, but I think we have a bowling attack capable of stopping him. It is not the first time that we are up against a Test player. The only thing we have to be careful about is not dropping our guard."
The 2015-16 season has been marked by a dramatic increase in the number of outright wins secured; 62 out of the 114 completed games, the highest over the last four seasons. While the stats may point to changed mindset within the camps, the truth is that the surfaces have had an equal part to play. There is little doubt then that the 22 yards in question at the MCA Stadium in Pune will have plenty to offer for the bowlers, particularly the pacers.
An even covering of green - even if not as much as during the T20 between India and Sri Lanka earlier this month - will keep the pacers interested, according to the curator. That means both sides could look to considerably strengthen their pace attacks.
On that front, Mumbai have an advantage, particularly with Dhawal Kulkarni returning from injury to share the duties with Balwinder Sandhu, Shardul Thakur and Abhishek Nayar. Meanwhile, Saurashtra will have to rely mainly on Unadkat and Hardik Rathod, with Deepak Punia in a run-containing role.
This season has reiterated the impact Iyer has had on Mumbai's batting. Such has been his approach that the surfaces have conveniently been taken out of the equation while he has batted. What plans Saurashtra have up their sleeve to counter that threat could go a long way in deciding the outcome of the final.
Mumbai have won 27 out of the 53 contests between these two teams - 25 have been drawn (and one no result), with Saurashtra conceding a lead in 21 of those draws. If Jaydev Shah's boys can buck the trend, it would mark yet another giant leap for them in what has been a near-perfect season.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo