The Wankhede Stadium has an expectant air about it. Enter through the Polly Umrigar gate and it resembles a construction site, while on the other side the Vinoo Mankad gate leads one to the swank BCCI office, a sign of a huge shift in progress. The ground itself is expecting a complete overhaul, which will put it out of action for some time. But before that happens, Wankhede has some cricketing business to take care of: the Duleep Trophy final, and North Zone and West Zone - the finalists - owe it a good contest over the next five days.
It helps that both teams are battle-ready, after having fought their way into the final from a difficult corner in their respective final league matches.
North were 28 for 3 on the first morning against East Zone, but their captain Mithun Manhas led a middle- and lower-order resistance to take them to 183 for 6. The last four added 177 more as they wore the East bowlers down. In the second innings, Manhas and Aakash Chopra completely dominate the bowlers in their 368-run unbeaten partnership and sealed North's participation in the final at Wankhede.
West Zone had more trouble entering their match against the England Lions. They needed an outright win to enter the final. A draw was not an option even if they ended on the favourable side. Things looked bleak when the England Lions ended the first day at 273 for 4, but West stuck to it to bowl the Lions out for 355 and then gained a 139-run first-innings lead to get to a position from where their bowlers could at least work towards an improbable Lions collapse. Yusuf Pathan and Siddharth Trivedi did just that to set up an easy win in the end.
What's more North and West are evenly-matched sides with similar line-ups. They both have at least two batsmen in the top order who have been prolific in the domestic season so far; they both have an allrounder each who has stepped up every time his team has needed him; and they both have uncertain bowling attacks.
To add to Parthiv Patel and Cheteshwar Pujara in the middle order, West now have the services of Wasim Jaffer who scored 151 to set up the win against the Lions. North have Chopra and Manhas, who when teamed up with Yashpal Singh and Shikhar Dhawan on their good days, make a potentially dangerous batting line-up.
Chopra and Jaffer provide an interesting individual contest within the final. India are still without stable Test openers, and they will be looking for one before South Africa come for three Tests in late March. Jaffer, who was dropped for the last two Tests in Australia, has come back and scored big. Chopra, on the other hand, has done enough throughout the season to remain in the selectors' minds. He scored three centuries to aggregate 783 in the Ranji Trophy, the most important innings being his century in the final to resist the Praveen Kumar onslaught. His double-century against East was his third this first-class season.
But perhaps the Most Valuable Players might just be Rajat Bhatia and Pathan - their zonal and state teams will have realised that by now. Bhatia has good memories of Wankhede, as it was him and Chopra who scripted an amazing turnaround to help Delhi win the Ranji Trophy.
Pathan scored his third whirlwind century of the season in the Duleep Trophy opener, and then took the crucial five-for against the Lions. If one were to pick an XI from the current domestic season, Bhatia, for his consistency, and Pathan, for his audacity, would fight for the allrounder's slot. The next five days might be a good stage to settle the imaginary contest. Moreover, the two will want to end what has been perhaps their best first-class season on a high note.
But the two sides haven't fared well in their bowling. An obvious reason is they haven't had the time to figure out the best combination; they have played only two matches together. Munaf Patel and VRV Singh's availability and non-availability hasn't helped either. In the one match he played for North, VRV Singh has shown the ability to bowl in devastating bursts. North will look at VRV to be the main strike bowler, with Vikramjeet Malik and Bhatia doing their steady medium-pace bits.
The big decision for Manhas is whether to go with two spinners or an extra seamer. If he picks an extra seamer, he has to choose between Ashok Thakur and Samiullah Beigh, and drop either Amit Mishra or Chetanya Nanda. Manhas will have to discuss his match strategies with senior players since North don't have a coach any more. They had Vijay Dahiya for the first match but he was called back by Delhi to be with the Ranji one-day team.
Munaf's absence, having played the first match and then leaving to join the Indian team in Australia, leaves West without any fire power in the bowling department. Trivedi and Sandeep Jobanputra haven't really carried their Ranji form over to Duleep and they are left with the difficult task of leading the attack in the final. Rajesh Pawar, who hasn't made any impression, and Ramesh Powar, who hasn't even been picked in final XI, have given West further headaches. Parthiv might look towards his state team to strengthen the attack by picking Ashraf Makda and Mohnish Parmar, the latter having made his way into the squad after Powar was dropped.
The bowling gives North a slight edge, but this one promises to be a contest between the batsmen. The Wankhede wicket hasn't troubled the batsmen much this season, and the one for the final looks like another good wicket for them. Both captains said they expected some early movement with good bounce and little lateral movement. That should make stroke-playing easier and productive.
North Zone: Aakash Chopra, Shikhar Dhawan, Karan Goel, Mithun Manhas (capt), Yashpal Singh, Rajat Bhatia, Uday Kaul (wk), Amit Mishra, Chetanya Nanda, Vikramjeet Malik, VRV Singh, Ashok Thakur, Joginder Sharma, Samiullah Beigh, Sachin Rana.
West Zone: Sahil Kukreja, Wasim Jaffer, Ajinkya Rahane, Parthiv Patel (capt/wk), Cheteshwar Pujara, Rakesh Solanki, Yusuf Pathan, Rakesh Dhurv, Sandeep Jobanputra, Siddharth Trivedi, Ashraf Makda, Mohnish Parmar, Samad Fallah, Pinal Shah.