How will UP stop Tendulkar?
Mohammad Kaif had just finished addressing the press when he exclaimed in jest, "Arre, no one asked me about my plan for Sachin! I had prepared the answer so well". After the laughter subsided he went on, "Australia, Africa, Pakistan all have made plans and this man keeps scoring hundreds, what can we do extra special?" Indeed.
To state the obvious, Sachin Tendulkar's shadow threatens to engulf the Ranji Trophy final. That a big ton from the little big man could bring Mumbai their 38th Ranji title is almost considered a given. The last time he played in a Ranji final, two years back, he hit a hundred and Mumbai won. Who will stop him? The pitch offers hope.
It sports a greenish tinge and the curator promises not to shave off the grass before adding the cliché of "a sporting wicket". Uttar Pradesh's hopes rest on that. If it turns out to be a batting paradise, Mumbai's strong batting line-up that includes Wasim Jaffer, the prolific Ajinkya Rahane - both of whom have crossed 1,000 runs this season - and Rohit Sharma apart from him can be expected to score more runs than UP. Ashish Winston Zaidi, the former domestic bowler and now UP's manager, is pinning his hope on the pitch.
"It looks like it would help the seamers initially before getting slow," he said. "The curators have said they won't remove the grass. Our bowlers, like Praveen Kumar and RP Singh, will be the key." However, in India, grass on a pitch doesn't necessarily translate to seam movement. Dead grass is usually rolled and what little left is cut on the morning of the game. Kaif knows it only too well. "This [talk of sporting tracks] has been said for a while now but the pitches have been dead and have not helped spinners as well. What we need are sporting wickets that help the spinners as the game goes on."
Throughout this season, unlike the previous few years, UP have rode on their batting to get the first-innings lead to move ahead in the tournament. Tanmay Srivastava has got the most runs (654 at 54.50) with Kaif, Suresh Raina, and Shivakant Shukla pitching in with vital contributions. UP have just one outright win largely because the bowlers haven't fired on unresponsive pitches. It is not as if Mumbai, unbeaten this season, will lose any sleep if the pitch plays sporting. They have one of the world's best seam bowlers in Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar and the useful Dhawal Kulkarni and would expect their batsmen to handle anything that UP throws at them. The other question is will Mumbai get complacent with the presence of heavyweights? Jaffer asserts they won't be and revealed that Tendulkar addressed the team strongly on the same issue.
"We were a bit flat and complacent on the third day of the semi-final against Saurashtra and Sachin spoke to the team, warning us about complacency. We are all keyed up for this final," he said. "UP have a bunch of match winners and they have beaten us in the recent past. We know that they can do it again. We can't relax just because Sachin and Zaheer are in the team."
Mumbai haven't yet determined a final XI, though they have retained the same 12 from the semi-final. It could be a three-way contest for two spots between Amol Muzumdar, 31 runs short of becoming the highest Ranji run-scorer but struggling this season, Sairaj Bahutule, who hasn't been very successful with his legspin, and Abhishek Nayar, the promising allrounder. UP have more or less decided on their composition. A fit RP Singh is set to replace Imityaz Ahmed.
Both teams had a vigorous nets session today. All eyes were on Tendulkar, who as ever, didn't face any bowlers on the day before the match. Instead, he faced some throw downs and concentrated on his back-foot play. Time and again, he asked the bowlers to throw shorter for the "cut shot" and practiced quite plenty punchy on-the-up drives. One can only guess whether it gives any indication of what he thinks the pitch will do.
The battle promises to be interesting. UP, the Pakistan of domestic cricket, thrive on passion and instinct while there is more method in Mumbai's approach. "We don't have the infrastructure or the history that Mumbai have," said Kaif. "We have the passion and the confidence that we can do it. I feel very proud that despite the lack of resources, we have reached the final three times in the last four years. We will give it our all. Let's see what happens."
Let's indeed see.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo