Fog threatens Rajasthan's progress
Will it, won't it? Like a marauding medieval army sweeping over the vast plains of Haryana, the mere premonition of a winter fog has settled over those involved in the Ranji Trophy semi-final starting on Tuesday in Lahli, outside Rohtak.
It is home team Haryana's first Ranji Trophy semi-final in two decades. It is Rajashtan's first as defending Ranji champions. To have that happen only because it has snowed in the distant Himalayas is of course meteorologically logical. Yet its consequences on cricket can be dire. Should the side batting second not complete 30 overs in their first innings due to bad weather, Haryana will go through on net run-rate.
The match venue, Lalhi's Ch Bansi Lal Cricket Stadium is a fog-magnet, set amid scenic open fields of sugarcane and mustard. Five years ago, when word went around that Virender Sehwag was coming to bat here, 2000 materialised from the neighbouring villages to watch Viru.
As the teams practised at the Bansi Lal stadium on Monday, the sun shone after two days of grey misery, and anxiety dissipated. Were the semi-final scheduled to start today, match referee Pranab Roy reckoned that even a 9:30am start would have been possible.
It is not as if the weather is part of Haryana's home advantage. In last year's quarter-final, in Lahli, they scored 379 for 6 declared in their first innings. Only 195 overs could be bowled in the entire match, and Tamil Nadu, who were 285 for 6 at the end of the game, went through to the semi-finals. They had qualified because they scored their runs at 3.60 an over during the game, against Haryana's rate of 3.26. The same rule will apply in this year's semi-final, should at least 30 overs be completed in the team batting second's first innings. With fog lurking, who wants to win a toss and decide what to do?
"The fog is a weather condition you can't really control," HCA secretary Anirudh Chaudhry said. "Saying we should not play here is like saying let's not play in Chennai because it rains there. We are not worried about it."
Neither Rajasthan nor Haryana would want their campaign to end this way. The teams have tumbled their way through the league phase but landed on their feet, each finishing third in their group and somehow squeezing into the knockouts. They have played their best cricket when it mattered most, with minds free of clutter and fog-free game-plans.
The semi-final will be a contest between two sets of unheralded triers and, barring a handful of better-known 'professionals', largely faceless fighters. If Rajasthan have been a revelation over the past two seasons, then Haryana's omnipresence at the business end of the Ranji Trophy has surprised many. Amit Mishra, the Haryana captain, said getting to the latter stages of the tournament consistently would help his team earn recognition.
"A lot of people don't know that we have qualified for the knockouts three times in a row now," Mishra said. "We need such matches to get our team's profile higher." By winning the Ranji Trophy last season, after starting the season in the Plate division, Rajasthan showed teams like Haryana how to upset the more-fancied teams. They would not want to be at the receiving end of their own lesson.
Mishra, though, stuck to the facts. "I don't want to get into discussions about underdogs and favourites. They are defending champions and this is our home ground."
Locals say the Lahli pitch is a swing and seam bowler's delight; in both matches played here this season, however, first-innings scores crossed 300. Haryana coach Ashwini Kumar termed Lahli a "medium-pacer's track". Rajasthan captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar said he thought there would be runs in the pitch. "The surface will do a bit at the start but should things should pan out well later for the batsmen," he said.
The biggest blessing for the bowlers, Kumar says, is how clean the air is. "It is completely pollution-free. So bowlers who have the stamina to send down seven-over spells in normal conditions can run in and bowl 10 overs here. The air is so clean."
It has remained so over the course of the last five years, since Lahli's first Ranji match, in 2006-07. However, a lot else has changed in Lahli, and Rohtak, and certainly in Haryana cricket. Aakash Chopra, the former India opener, played for Delhi in the 2006-07 season, and was involved in the match in Lahli that ended in three days and relegated the home team to the Plate division.
He returned this year to find the journey from Rohtak to the stadium quicker, and on a smoother road. The ground has grown into a larger facility, and Chopra is happy to be away from the hotel where players had to pay Rs 10 for a bucket of hot water - free for India players - in the bad old days. Chopra now represents Rajasthan and he will face a new generation of Haryana bowlers in Lahli.
Some weather reports promise clear skies over Lahli for the next three days. The Indian meteorological department predicts fog on Tuesday. The other semi-final, Mumbai v Tamil Nadu, may have a star cast, but Haryana v Rajasthan has the makings of a real thriller.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo