Delhi v Uttar Pradesh, Ranji Trophy final, Mumbai January 15, 2008

Game on at the Wankhede

Is it a sign of things to come or will the batsmen prove a point on a track which is expected to help the fast bowlers? © Cricinfo Ltd

The kite climbs higher and higher, like a bird in the sky at the Wankhede Stadium. The string is held by couple of Delhi players who are egged on by their team-mates. Some distance to their right, the Uttar Pradesh players are indulging in a bit of fun as well. The relaxed atmosphere belies the fact that come tomorrow, and both these teams will be fighting for the coveted Ranji Trophy.

Eleven years have flown by since Delhi last reached, and lost, the final while Uttar Pradesh are back in the summit clash after two years. Both teams are, obviously, desperate to win. Delhi want to forget their recent sordid past, when political machinations and faulty selection processes used to hog the headlines. Surprisingly, cricket has been the sole topic of discussion this season. It's a refreshing change for some of the senior players, who only a year back were considering switching states to get away from the mess.

For the last few seasons, players from Delhi would make it to the national team, but at the domestic stage the team struggled. "Many players went on to play for India but the team was not winning anything," says Vijay Dahiya, the coach, who played in that 1996-97 final. "That has hurt the players. They want to set that record right. If you talk to anyone this season, you will realise their focus is entirely on doing well for Delhi."

The senior players like Gautam Gambhir and Aakash Chopra concur. It is their first Ranji final and both want to make it memorable. "We want to experience that feeling of winning the Ranji Trophy, that's the greatest motivation," says Gambhir, Delhi's captain. "I was always passionate about playing for Delhi. It has given me the platform to play for India and at one stage you have to give back to your state as well. This is my chance."

Mohammad Kaif, the UP captain, has tasted that winning feeling before and wants more of it. "Winning the title is the key focus and not individual selections for the national side. That will come when we win this. The last time we won, a few players went on to play for the country. But the focus was right - win the title and reap the rewards. Not the other way around."

If Delhi want to leave behind the past, Uttar Pradesh want to create a new future. Their success story has been despite the system. They have bypassed the infrastructural speed-breakers - poor practice facilities, the substandard gyms - to repeat the story of 2005-06. Like that year, they have come from behind to enter the final. They hope a victory here will help in sprucing up the system.

One of the biggest challenges for both teams is the wicket that has been laid out by curator Sudhir Naik. The surface has a fair sprinkling of grass and promises to offer bounce and movement. Both teams, while praising the "international quality track" are pretty wary of it. Unless things change dramatically overnight, it's almost certain that the captain winning the toss will choose to bowl. Naik, relieved of the pressure of producing a lifeless track for the usual hosts Mumbai, has laid out a wicket which should produce a decisive result. "A few players from both teams did come to me, enquiring whether the grass would be removed. I had to disappoint them," Naik says with a chuckle. "It is definitely going to help the pacers and I won't be surprised to see a team getting bowled out on the first day." Dahiya admitted he would bowl first and Kaif hinted at the same.

The pitch is hardly a greentop, but considering how domestic batsmen from all teams have repeatedly folded up whenever the wicket was a touch difficult - the semi-finals are the most recent examples - Naik's assessment could well turn out to be right.

It is definitely going to help the pacers and I won't be surprised to see a team getting bowled out on the first daySudhir Naik, Curator

The contest will come down to how the either team's batsmen measure up against the opposition fast bowlers. Both sides have a decent pace attack led by young promising talent. If it's Sudeep Tyagi, who has the second-highest tally of the season with 39 wickets at 19.84, leading the attack for UP, then Pradeep Sangwan, with 24 wickets at 21.20 and fresh from a successful tour with the India Under-19 team, will be the spearhead for Delhi.

If UP have Praveen Kumar, with 28 wickets at 16.28, to give able support to Tyagi, Delhi have Sumit Narwal and one of either Parvinder Awana or Amit Bhandari - Gambhir's one selection headache will be which one of the two to select. In addition, both teams have a medium-pacer - the in-form Rajat Bhatia for Delhi and Bhuvneshwar Kumar for UP - to do the dirty job of performing as stock bowlers.

The spin threat is posed by legspinners for both teams: Piyush Chawla - who was seen practising a lot in the nets, trying to bowl with a more round-arm action to get more fizz on the legbreaks - for UP and Chetanya Nanda for Delhi.

The bowling attack balances out but what about the batting? Delhi outscore UP in this department, with three batsmen - Gambhir, Chopra and Mithun Manhas - who have scored almost 600 runs this season. In addition, they have Shikhar Dhawan with 502 runs and Bhatia with 386. UP's batting has revolved around Kaif, who is in glorious form (670 runs) and Suresh Raina, with 582. However, the batting has dropped a notch after a fiery start. They will be happy to have Tanmay Srivastava returning from the India Under-19 outing in South Africa and will hope that he can give them a good start, something that UP have failed to produce consistently this season. However, Delhi clearly have the edge in batting, especially as their opening batsmen are of proven quality and can be expected to tackle the new-ball threat.

What could work to UP's advantage is the fact that they have played three consecutive pressure-cooker games and are battle-hardened as a result. They faced relegation before the game against Bengal but won by an innings and have rode on the momentum ever since. They swept aside Hyderabad by 132 runs in their last league game before clinching a low-scoring semi-final against Saurashtra.

Considering they had taken a similar path in their championship year of 2005-06, UP also have the advantage of having been there and done that as recently as two years ago. Pitted against that bullishness is Delhi's desperation to end the title drought. The stakes couldn't be higher and the battle couldn't be fiercer. It's game on at the Wankhede Stadium.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo