It's time for spin at the Wankhede
It's a humid day. The rollers are slowly killing any grass that has somehow managed to stick to the surface of the pitch. The stands are empty. There are no busy officials scurrying around. The setting is, in short, soporific. Scratch the surface, though, and you will feel the nervous anticipation: the Ranji season is about to begin. And here at the Wankhede it gets off tomorrow with a cracker: Mumbai v Karnataka.
While Karnataka have the huge presence of Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, Mumbai are the defending champions and have the luxury of match practice this season. They won the Mohammad Nissar Trophy in Pakistan and played the Irani Trophy, which they lost. The youngsters that Pravin Amre, the coach, invested in last season have begun to pay back their guru dakshina.
Abhishek Nayar, the middle-order batsman who has scored two centuries already this season, Ajinkya Rahane and Sahil Kukreja, who added 381 runs in three innings when they opened this season, and Iqbal Abdulla, the young left-arm spinner who forced out the veteran Nilesh Kulkarni from the side, have begun to find their feet. In addition there are the usual suspects - Amol Muzumdar, Wasim Jaffer, Vinayak Samant, the street-smart wicketkeeper batsman, and Hiken Shah. And they are playing at home.
However, the weather might give Karnataka the edge. A steady drizzle over the past few days has prevented the curator, Sudhir Naik, from watering the track. That has left the pitch dry and Naik reckoned it will take spin straight away. "It is likely to start turning by the last session of the first day," Naik told Cricinfo. "Considering the preparations have been affected by the weather, I see the wicket helping the seamers too."
Kumble and Sunil Joshi - who took 29 wickets at 24.81 last season - would be licking their lips at the prospect of bowling here. They also have C Raghu, who took 10 wickets last season with his offspin.
Mumbai have the experienced Ramesh Powar, who had a fine tour of England before being dropped after two bad ODIs against Australia, and the young Abdulla, rated highly by Amre. However, Vijay Bharadwaj, Karnataka's coach, said his batsmen are not worried by either of them. "I don't see them as a huge threat. You can't compare their spinners with Kumble and Joshi. I expect the pitch to break up pretty soon and our boys should relish the chance to get stuck in."
There must have been a temptation to play the extra spinner in KP Appanna, the classical left-arm spinner who took 21 wickets in the previous season, but Bharadwaj is confident that Raghu can do the job of the third spinner. He also has faith in his fast men - R Vinay Kumar, who took 27 wickets in the previous season, and NC Aiyappa, who has recovered from the injury that restricted him to just two games last season.
Bharadwaj was not worried about the Mumbai pace attack either. He stressed that neither Ajit Agarkar nor his partner Aavishkar Salvi, (who has modelled his action on Glenn McGrath) were not discussed much by the team. "They are good bowlers but if our batsmen bat to their potential we can post a big score," Bharadwaj said.
Apart from Dravid, Bharadwaj was pinning his hopes on Raghu, who is a stylish middle-order bat as well. "If Raghu comes good, our batting will look really formidable." Raghu, for his part, sounded confident. "I have prepared well for this season and want to play a big part in this year's campaign." Echoing his coach's confidence, he said there had been no special preparation for the Mumbai bowlers nor was he sweating over the state of the wicket. "If it spins or seams, we are ready. I have not looked at the track too closely."
Karnataka can also look to Yere Goud, the veteran who compiled 522 runs last season, the feisty wicketkeeper batsman Thilak Naidu, with 605 runs in the previous season, and Barrington Rowland. The absence of the prolific Robin Uthappa at the top will be felt but Bharadwaj is confident that KB Pawan would grab the opportunity.
Amre, Mumbai's coach, was no less bullish about his team's prospects. "Mumbai are never the underdogs," Amre told Cricinfo. "As Amol [Muzumdar] told the team, Mumbai always go into any match as favourites." He was confident of the potency of his slow men, Powar and Abdulla. "Powar is looking good in the nets, is bowling really well and is capable of running through any side on his day. And the way Abdulla started off in Pakistan [ in the Nissar Trophy], I am hopeful he will come good. There's nothing like being given a chance on your home ground, especially when it is expected to assist spin. He is bowling well but he has to go and do it at the ground too."
That could be the key to the game. Given Powar's big-match experience, it could come down to how well Abdulla can bowl at the likes of Dravid. If he gets the yips or Karnataka take him out with some attacking batting, Powar will be burdened with too much to do alone. And Dravid, who, along with VVS Laxman, took Powar to the cleaners in the Irani Trophy four seasons back in Chennai, will be itching to play a big knock here.
Amre realises the threat posed by Kumble and Dravid. He had been watching recent footage of Dravid's batting to study his flaws: Dravid has been caught at the crease and has not been in great nick of late. Amre hoped that would continue for at least one more game. "He is too good a batsman to stay out of form for long, needs just one good innings to get into groove but we will have to go hard at him early and bowl at the right areas. And we are playing at home and I am hopeful that the batsmen would come good against their spinners."
So, with two confident teams going in with double-spin attack, the match is likely to be decided by how well their batsmen play the turning ball. Get ready to see silly point, short leg and a backward short leg crowd the batsman; it's time for spin at the Wankhede.
Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo