There was a time when your Ranji Trophy season used to be as good as over the moment you drew Mumbai in the knockouts. There was a time when teams were in awe of the 39-time champions. That awe has now been replaced by respect for their past deeds but teams today know that Mumbai are fallible, as Rajasthan showed last season. That the depleted Mumbai side facing Madhya Pradesh is almost unrecognisable from the formidable sides of the past is not lost on the hosts. Devendra Bundela, the MP captain, even said that they were "not taking Mumbai lightly."
Such confidence might seem misplaced in a side in its first season in the Elite League in seven years but TP Sudhindra, MP's leading wicket-taker this season, had a more practical take on the issue. "Several of us have played with a lot of the Mumbai players in tournaments like the Times Shield. It is not like they are unknown to us."
Familiarity with the Mumbai players has certainly helped but not as much as the self-belief that comes when you defeat established sides like Delhi and Gujarat. Both those wins came at the pace-friendly Emerald High School Ground on the outskirts of Indore. The pitch at the Holkar Stadium, the venue for the quarter-final, is known to be much better for batting. With a pace-dominated attack, there is no doubt over where the MP team would have preferred to play. But this is a knockout game and the Holkar Stadium had to be chosen as it has much better facilities.
The change in venue might just suit MP's batsmen though. The outstanding performance of their new-ball pair of Sudhindra and Ishwar Pandey - with 57 wickets between them - and the form of Naman Ojha have allowed them to carry an underperforming batting unit. Only Bundela, apart from Ojha, has managed more than 300 runs this season. More than half of Mohnish Mishra's 263 runs came in his crucial hundred against Bengal.
Mukesh Sahni, the coach, admitted that his batsmen have not clicked together. "It's not that they have not made runs," Sahni said. "But when one of them has scored, the others haven't and so on. All of them have been hitting the ball well in the nets. But scoring runs in the middle is different. I have been telling them, 'this is the moment. All of you have to come good in this game.'"
While Mumbai's depleted attack might not seem threatening, they have the pedigree of Dhawal Kulkarni and Ramesh Powar to test MP, who are banking on Sudhindra and Pandey to make inroads. "Medium-pace bowling is our strength," Bundela said. "Our bowlers have taken wickets both at home and away."
Sudhindra said that while making the semi-finals by getting past a side like Mumbai would be very satisfying, it would pale in comparison if MP actually manage to win the Ranji Trophy for the first time.