Jailbreak experts in a corner again
Mumbai are cornered, but they have scripted successful escape acts in the past. Last season, they were without any points going into the fourth game, but won five in a row to lift the Ranji Trophy. "Been there, done that" is the fuel behind their confidence and Amol Muzumdar, the captain, is banking on it. "We have been in this situation before and everybody knows the importance of the game. We can do it."
But even Muzumdar admits the situation this year is precarious. The bowling has been severely depleted with injuries to Ajit Agarkar, Aavishkar Salvi and Rajesh Verma. Meanwhile, Ramesh Powar's recent form has been a cause of worry. He has picked up just nine wickets from the last four games, after grabbing 15 in the first two. The inexperienced Murtuza Hussain leads the seam attack and Mumbai will hope that Powar, along with Nilesh Kulkarni, the replacement for Iqbal Abdulla, can raise their game when it matters the most.
Muzumdar knows where the problem lies. "It has been an up and down season. Obviously the injuries have not helped. The replacements are very young; Murtuza is playing his third game, [Mondeep] Mangela has just played one. [Usman] Malvi has been around but he has been in and out. We have been struggling to get 20 wickets and that's why we have not been able to finish games."
That has been the story of their season. In their opening game, Mumbai had Karnataka reeling with a 142-run lead, but Rahul Dravid imposed himself in the second innings with a double century. In the third game, against Delhi, they came back from an 85-run deficit to set a target of 387, but could only pick up three wickets as Gautam Gambhir and Akash Chopra put up an 188-run opening stand.
And in the next match, they fell 15 runs short of Maharashtra's 451 to give away the lead and three points. From a wobbly 197 for 6, they were steadied by a 185-run partnership between Powar (107) and Agarkar (95), but both fell in quick succession to leave Mumbai just short of the line.
Mumbai picked up five points next time out, but it was only because Rajasthan chose to go for a win and lost three wickets in the last over. Again the bowlers had not done a great deal as Rajasthan lost five wickets in the second innings to run-outs. In their last outing, Hossain picked up a six-wicket haul to force Himachal Pradesh to follow on, but injury to Agarkar - who limped off after just 5.2 overs - and Powar's indifferent form meant they couldn't kill the contest and Himachal batted their way to a draw.
The batting too has been a bit up and down. Abhishek Nayar and Sahil Kukreja, the opener, tapered off after a good start, Muzumdar has gone the other way - coming into form after an indifferent beginning, Ajinkya Rahane has been steady, but not spectacular while Rohit Sharma has been struggling for runs with just 150 from four games.
Pravin Amre, who helped in Muzumdar's revival by rectifying problems with his footwork and head position, has been working a lot on Sharma. "The change of format [from Twenty20 to ODIs to first-class] has been a reason for his loss of form. A few errors have crept in. We are working hard on his pick up and his down swing and he is improving rapidly. I am hoping he scores a big one in this game to set up things for us."
Hope is the operative word in the Mumbai camp - they hope Powar and Kulkarni will perform, they hope the batsmen will raise their games and they must be hoping Tamil Nadu can help their cause by upsetting Delhi - but they are also waiting to see how Saurashtra handle pressure. And that could be the real factor in this game.
As Muzumdar put it, "The pressure is on them. They are leading the table. We just want to treat this game as a quarterfinal and we need to play good aggressive cricket. We know how to play that kind of cricket and we are focussed."
And a national selector said, "Mumbai have this knack of getting out of trouble, they will somehow make it." Time will tell.
Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo