Gujarat's best shot at title after 66-year wait
India had not yet recorded their first Test win when Gujarat last had a shot at Indian domestic cricket's biggest prize a lifetime ago, in 1950-51. Polly Umrigar was their captain then. Chandu Sarvate, Jamshed Bhaya, Madhavsinh Jagdale and Syed Mushtaq Ali, after whom stands are named at Indore's Holkar Stadium, the venue of the 83rd Ranji Trophy final starting Tuesday, were in the opposition camp. Deepak Shodhan, who until May last year was India's oldest living Test cricketer, played in the game which they lost to Holkar. Multiple generations of cricketers from Gujarat don't know what it is to feature in a Ranji final.
In comparison, Mumbai have converted 41 of their 45 finals appearances into championship wins. The last time they lost in the summit clash was to Haryana in 1990-91, a game where Dilip Vengsarkar was inconsolable after Mumbai lost by two runs. Since then, they have qualified for the finals on eleven occasions, and have won every single time, the last of which was against Saurashtra, who were crushed in little over two days last year in Pune.
Yet, this is Gujarat's best possible chance at glory, for they have shown more than just glimpses of old Mumbai in the way they have set up games, by batting big, batting long and then using the scoreboard pressure to skittle opponents. It was this tactic that worked when the sides last met in Hubli in November. But Jasprit Bumrah, whose five-for snuffed out Mumbai's quest for a lead there, will be missed; he has been named in India's limited-overs squad for the England series.
That puts the onus on RP Singh, fresh from a nine-for in the semi-final, to spearhead the young bowling attack.They will be buoyed by the return of Rush Kalaria, who didn't bat or bowl in the second innings during the semi-final, because of a shoulder injury. One of Mehul Patel or Chintan Gaja is in line to replace Bumrah.
It's the batting, however, that is more formidable. Priyank Panchal is on the cusp of an all-time Ranji record - he needs 146 more to beat VVS Laxman's record for most runs in a season, achieved in 1999-00. With 1270 runs, he's miles ahead of other batsmen for runs this season.
Among batsmen from in this match, Samit Gohel, his opening partner, comes a distant second with 889 runs. Parthiv Patel, the captain, can be a thorn to any bowling attack. The domestic veteran's grind for more than a decade now cannot be understated. Manprit Juneja and Chirag Gandhi, both of whom played key roles in building a substantial second-innings lead in a crisis during the semi-final, have shown the ability to adapt at different times.
That Mumbai are a step away from the title without having a single batsman or bowler in the top 10 list this season is as much due to their typical 'khadoos' mentality symbolized by Abhishek Nayar. The veteran, who has been a part of five title-winning teams, has often rescued the sides with telling contributions lower down the order - none more important than at the semi-final in Rajkot, where he made 58 and struck vital partnerships with the tail to not just take the lead but also stretch it past 100, which proved decisive. In the quarter-final too, against Hyderabad, he picked nine wickets in a low-scoring game which Mumbai won by 30 runs.
The emergence of a young 17-year old opener in Prithvi Shaw, a schoolboy wonder, who stroked an under-pressure century on debut in the semi-final, has given Mumbai a fresh look. He will be partnered by Akhil Herwadkar, who missed the previous four games because of a foot injury. That means Praful Waghela could miss out. Herwadkar, Mumbai's second-highest run-getter last season, was given an extended workout at an optional net session on Sunday. Shreyas Iyer - Mumbai's highest run-getter this season without being the intimidating batsman he has been in his first two seasons - Suryakumar Yadav, Aditya Tare, the captain, and Siddesh Lad complete a formidable batting set that has shown capability of rising to the big occasions in the past.
On a red-soil surface that promises bounce and has a green cover, Mumbai could possibly have a healthy headache: do they go in with two frontline seamers in Shardul Thakur and Balwinder Sandhu alongside Nayar's more-than-useful seam-ups, or do they play a third seamer? If they decide the latter, Tushar Deshpande is likely to come in. After the debut season he has had, there can't be much doubt over the place of left-arm spinner Vijay Gohil, unless he is injured. That means the recalled Vishal Dabholkar, who has tweaked his action after being reported earlier in the season, could sit out.
The numbers favour Mumbai - they have lost just two out of the 61 matches against Gujarat, the last of which was in 1977-78. But in a crunch game, where both sides have shown why they deserve to be here, both captains insist no one had the edge over the other. That can't be a bad thing after all.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo