Might versus grit
When the Saurashtra team reached the Moti Bagh Stadium for their practice, Uttar Pradesh were about to end theirs. While Piyush Chawla was walking out of the adjoining practice wickets, Shitanshu Kotak was walking in. Chawla caught hold of Kotak and said, "Bahut rulaya aapne Mumbai ko Shitanshu bhai." Kotak just smiled. Chawla went on: "Khoon ke aansoo rulaye hai unhe aapne." The smile got bigger. An English translation won't do justice to the sentiment, but in effect Chawla paid tribute to how Kotak frustrated the hell out of Mumbai bowlers for more than two days in the previous match.
Chawla was speaking for a whole community of bowlers here and also summing up the story of the season, as far as Saurashtra were concerned. Of course, Saurashtra's amazing run to the semi-finals has not been about Kotak alone; Cheteshwar Pujara, in fact, has done the majority of the scoring. But Kotak represents the way Saurashtra have played: disciplined, playing out time, and frustrating the opposition. The semi-final starting at the Moti Bagh Stadium tomorrow will be one familiar tussle: the Uttar Pradesh bowlers will go hard at the Saurashtra batsmen, something all the teams have tried so far and met resolute defence.
The difference here will be that this being the semi-final, Saurashtra will have to keep the fight on for five days. And UP's attack is better than any Saurashtra have faced so far, bar perhaps Delhi against whom Saurashtra hung on to a draw in the dying minutes of the fourth evening.
UP are a dangerous team when they have the momentum, something they are in possession of right now. After four matches of the league stage, they were at the bottom of their group and looking to avoid relegation. Two almost perfect matches against Bengal and Hyderabad later, they have everything going for them: the pace attack looks potent with Praveen Kumar and Sudeep Tyagi, the fifth-highest wicket-taker in Ranji Trophy so far, working well with the new ball. Chawla has found a new spin partner in Praveen Gupta, the left-arm spinner who has got only three matches this season but has taken 11 wickets from three innings that he has had a chance to bowl in. Kumar's batting ability gives them the room to play another medium-pacer - either Bhuvneshwar Kumar or Abid Khan.
UP's batting will revolve around Suresh Raina and Mohammad Kaif in the middle order; the two are, not surprisingly, the leading run-getters for them so far. Just when they seemed to have found an end to their opening problems, Tanmay Srivastava, who scored two half-centuries in their last match, has left to play for India Under-19. Rahat Elahi is the man likely to replace him.
For Saurashtra, while their batsmen have been the focus with their dour batting, Sandeep Jobanputra, the left-arm medium-pacer, has quietly taken 32 wickets to become the fourth-highest wicket-taker. In helpful conditions, which the conditions here are likely to be, he can prove to be a handful with his ability to straighten the ball into the right-hand batsmen. The wicket is a typical Moti Bagh wicket, Kaif said, which meant it was a hard surface with some live grass, which should assist the fast bowlers earlier on, but a true wicket at the same time, something the batsmen should enjoy.
To support Jobanputra, Saurashtra have the stable right-arm medium pace of Sandeep Maniar, the left-arm spin of Rakesh Dhurv, and the offspin of Kamlesh Makvana, who has not been able to repeat the success in the first match when he took six wickets to run through Himachal Pradesh when they looked like running away with the first-innings lead.
Like UP, Saurashtra too have been hit by exodus to the India U-19 team - Ravindra Jadeja, the left-arm spinning allrounder who hit 87 against Mumbai, has gone to South Africa. While two traditional powerhouses - Delhi and Baroda - meet in Indore, it's the clash of Indian cricket's backwaters here in Vadodara. The only other time Saurashtra have come as far as the semi-finals was in 1980-81 when they took the first-innings lead against Delhi, but collapsed in the second innings to lose by eight wickets. UP have only won the Ranji Trophy once and when they did in 2005-06, they were in a similar state as this season: after four matches then, they were at the bottom with four points. They simply won everything after that, and have done the same so far this year.
On paper, given the presence of big stars and the momentum, UP will have an upper hand against Saurashtra, but then again not many haven't. Teams have even made the mistake of putting them in, thinking they can easily be rolled over and have gone on to find the contrary. It never hurt being an underdog, did it?
Uttar Pradesh: Rohit Prakash Srivastava, Rahat Ealhi, Mohammad Kaif (captain), Suresh Raina, Ravikant Shukla, Amir Khan (wk), Praveen Kumar, Piyush Chawla, Praveen Kumar, Sudeep Tyagi, Bhuvneshwar Kumar
Saurashtra: Sagar Jogiyani (wk), Kanaiya Vaghela, Shitanshu Kotak, Cheteshwar Pujara, Jaydev Shah (captain), Nikhil Rathod, Chirag Pathak, Rakesh Dhurv, Kamlesh Makvana, Sandip Maniar, Sandeep Jobanputra
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo