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Maharashtra ride on Sanklecha's shoulders

Anupam Sanklecha celebrates a wicket PTI

In a tournament where fast bowlers are often loaded with onerous tasks, Maharashtra have made for one of the more striking anomalies in the Ranji Trophy. Their potent pace attack has made them stand out among teams that have traditionally banked on spinners.

Not only has that trend continued in 2016-17, it has soared to new heights, with Anupam Sanklecha snaring 40 wickets at 14.92 to top the bowling charts. Sanklecha's fortunes have mirrored Maharashra's. At one point languishing at eighth on the Group B table, they surged to third with back-to-back innings wins, and Sanklecha was the driving force, taking 14 wickets - the best match haul by any Maharashtra bowler - against Vidarbha on a relaid Eden Gardens surface followed by 12 against Assam that included a career-best 8 for 73.

"They were two of my best performances," Sanklecha tells ESPNcricinfo. "They were good wickets that had carry. At Eden Gardens, there was good swing and I was in good rhythm. And the match was happening after a break, so we were feeling quite fresh. In Chennai [against Assam], there was good heat and the wicket was very flat. The ball wasn't swinging much either, so I had to vary my angles and use reverse-swing and some bounce. I had to plan every batsman's dismissal."

Sanklecha is quite used to turning in clutch performances. He was at the forefront of the win against Mumbai in 2013-14, when his four-for helped Maharashtra bounce back from conceding a 122-run first-innings deficit and enter their first semifinal in over two decades. "Beating Mumbai in Mumbai and performing well is a dream come true," he says.

The following year, he took eight wickets against Andhra as Maharashtra burst into their second successive semifinal. And while they did not make the knockouts in 2015-16, Sanklecha's eight wickets in Maharashtra's last group game knocked out Karnataka, consigning the double defending champions to their first defeat in 37 matches.

Surendra Bhave, the former Maharashtra batsman, coached them in their run to the final in 2013-14, and was impressed with what he saw not just in Sanklecha but the overall pace-bowling talent in the state.

"Sanklecha and [Samad] Fallah stand out as swing bowlers, and Domnic [Joseph] is a hit-the-wicket-hard kind of bowler, whom we picked straight from tennis-ball cricket," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "Fallah taking that many wickets in first-class cricket has helped other bowlers immensely. That guy has just got a knack of picking wickets from anywhere, from any run-up - square, round, he skips his run-up at times and bowls.

"The other bowlers have worked out that what you need at that level is the ability to pick wickets, and have learned a lot from Fallah. It shows that all these good things happen in partnerships."

In 2013-14, the quartet of Sanklecha, Fallah, Joseph and Shrikant Mundhe took 108 wickets; the numbers for the subsequent two seasons were 121 and 79 respectively.

Even a cursory glance at those numbers shows the effectiveness of the partnerships Bhave speaks of. This year, however, partnerships have been scant: Fallah, Mundhe and Joseph have a combined tally of six matches and nine wickets, leaving Sanklecha on his own. To put things in perspective, Sanklecha has taken 40 of the 91 wickets taken by Maharashtra's bowlers this season: a percentage of nearly 44.

"Sanklecha is an absolute master when it comes to swinging the ball," Bhave says. "He has a big inswinger, an authentic away-swinger and also that ball which actually dips in and cuts away from the seam. That's a wonderful weaponry to have with you. It's just the way he bowls the fourth-stump line all the time and keeps you guessing.

"His stock delivery is the one that comes into the batsman. So you are actually playing at the fourth or fifth-stump line all the time, and anything you're leaving from that line becomes dangerous. That's how he has picked up all his wickets."

Online footage of Sanklecha's bowling is scant, and while there is no description of who the batsmen are, Sanklecha's skillset is still discernible in a collection of short YouTube clips of his performance against Vidarbha this season. The wickets come through harrying the batsman from the good length and forcing him to play in the corridor. There is a deceptive fuller one that angles in, straightens, opens up the batsman and rips out off stump.

The inswinger comes naturally to Sanklecha, but he is adaptable. "The angle depends on what the batsman is comfortable playing," he says. "But whatever I do, I keep the wrist firm. The key is to not let it drop."

It helps that he runs in at an easy pace and has a smooth action that helps him with rhythm and consistency. The wrist is supple and locks itself into a lovely inward curve as he releases the ball. "He's pretty nippy, he's not slow," Bhave says. "He's got a beautiful, rhythmic action."

The rise to leader of Maharashtra's attack has come rather late for the 34-year-old Sanklecha, who made his debut in 2004. A move to the rebel Indian Cricket League cost him a few years, but he has been a prominent figure ever since his return. The off-season work he puts in on his fitness has played a big role in his resurgence, as has playing in England, where he turns out for Shipton Under Wychwood in the Counties Premier League.

"I play there in the off-season because it's monsoon here. Better than trying to do anything here is to go there and get some practice, play some matches, and you get enough time to look after your fitness as well. And when you get back from there, the season here begins, so you are already in touch and don't have to start from scratch."

Bhave hails Sanklecha's effectiveness irrespective of the surface. "Even if it is a turner, it does not make much of a difference because Anupam is damn good at swinging the ball in the air. The other thing is that turning tracks usually have some friction and grip, and that helps Anupam bowl equally well. He is a bowler for all wickets."

In the absence of some of their regular pacers, Maharashtra have unearthed a new talent in the 21-year old Mohsin Sayyed, who has picked up 18 wickets in six matches. "Mohsin Sayyed, young lad, has been pretty consistent this year," Bhave says. "He's a young investment, who I've known for a long time because many years ago, we won the Polly Umrigar Under-16 trophy and Mohsin was my main bowler."

Maharashtra's momentum came to a screeching halt in their last match against Odisha. Sanklecha once again bagged a five-for, but Maharashtra were bowled out twice inside a day to lose by an innings. It has left them facing a must-win situation in their final group game, against Karnataka. "If we can have a good time, you never know what can happen," Sanklecha says. "We will just try and win the next game. Other teams may win or lose, but it's our job to win and then see what happens."