Unexpected leaders, unusual venue
The village of Nagothane is about 120 kilometres from Mumbai. Another 10-odd kms into the hills and you reach the township housing the Reliance Cricket Stadium. It's a beautiful ground and, fittingly, makes it first-class debut with a top-of-the-table clash between two teams - Maharashtra and Delhi - who are unlikely group leaders.
Maharashtra have surprised all so far by securing 15 points from four games - with seven debutants and several unknown players, they have outplayed every team they've come up against. They started the season without veterans Sairaj Bahutule and Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who were not back to full fitness after injuries from the previous season.
On paper they have done the simple things right: outright wins over weaker opposition - with bonus points, where possible - and first-innings points from the stronger sides. Apart from the match against Tamil Nadu, where rain ruined the first-innings result, things have gone to plan, with Maharashtra beating Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh (the latter with a bonus point) and taking three points from the match in Mumbai. .
A huge factor in their current position at the top of Group A has been their ability to handle nerves. Chandrakant Pandit, their coach, admits they were anxious going into the match against Mumbai - not just because they were playing a big side but also because a good performance would help their chances of making it to the semi-finals. The nerves showed early on but they survived a mini-collapse and took a crucial first-innings lead. With two matches to go, one of them against Saurashtra, they know even three points against Delhi will get them a semi-final berth.
Maharashtra's young batsmen have done well. Harshad Khadiwale started off with a century against Tamil Nadu, Yogesh Takawale and Vishal Bhilare led their fightback against Mumbai, and captain Venugopal Rao and Bahutule brought them back from 85 for 6 against HP. The main area of concern, says Pandit, is getting a good start. With heavy dew and chill around in the morning, Maharashtra need their openers to wear out the first session should they bat first.
Delhi, who had just about survived relegation last season, were equally unexpected to be placed second after four rounds. Their main weapon so far has been the resilience they have shown in their second innings. Against Rajasthan in the in the season opener, they were bowled out for 119 on the first day, but came back to score 387 in the second innings and win outright. Although they failed to close the game out against Mumbai after bowling them out cheaply, Gautam Gambhir and Aakash Chopra batted well in the second innings to ensure a draw. Then, when HP bowled Delhi bowled out for 75 and enforced the follow on, Gambhir and Chopra came to the rescue with hundreds, Chopra's a determined double.
This time Delhi will be without Gambhir, who is playing for India in Bangalore, but the two other openers will be the men under focus - Chopra, who has scored runs at the right time (493 runs at 70.42 in Ranji to go with his double-century against South Africa A) and made his way to the 24 probables for the Test series in Australia, and Virender Sehwag, who has missed the same list after an indifferent Ranji season so far.
The comeback of Pradeep Sangwan, the left-arm swing bowler who has been crucial to their success so far with 18 wickets in three matches, will give them the attacking option in Ishant Sharma's absence. Sangwan had twisted his ankle and did not play the last match. Apart from Sangwan and Parvinder Awana, Delhi have decided to go with two spinners: Chetanya Nanda, the legspinner, and Narender Singh, the offspinner.
Delhi do not want to make the mistake they did against Himachal, going for an outright win without ensuring the first-innings points. "It [Delhi's batting in the first innings] is an area of concern. Ranji Trophy games are decided more in the first innings than in the second," said Vijay Dahiya, Delhi's coach. "It's important to bat well in the first innings. We have come back well in the second innings, but then you are chasing the game then instead of setting it up."
The focus on the virgin surface is inevitable and both teams looked pleased with the ground conditions. There's a smooth outfield, scenic surroundings, and a good pavilion. The pitch wears a dark brown look and is unsurprisingly hard, given that this is rocky terrain. Dahiya said it was not an even surface as the ball bumped its way through the pitch instead of rolling along. That explains Delhi's choice of two spinners.
Maharashtra too are likely to go with the same combination of two spinners and two pace bowlers. Wahid Sayyed and Samad Fallah make up a right-arm-left-arm pace combination, while the experienced former captain, Bahutule, should be partnered by left-arm spinner Salil Agharkar.
Delhi (likely): 1 Aakash Chopra, 2 Virender Sehwag (capt), 3 Mayank Tehlan, 4 Shikhar Dhawan, 5 Mithun Manhas, 6 Rajat Bhatia, 7 Puneet Bisht (wk), 8 Chetanya Nanda, 9 Narender Singh, 10 Parvinder Awana, 11 Pradeep Sangwan.
Maharashtra (likely): Harshad Khadiwale, 2 Vishant More (wk), 3 Hrishikesh Kanitkar, 4 Venugopal Rao (capt), 5 Yogesh Takawale, 6 Vishal Bhilare, 7 Kedar Jadhav, 8 Sairaj Bahutule, 9 Salil Agharkar, 10 Wahid Sayyed, 11 Samad Fallah.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo