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Ranji season reaches its climax

It will probably be the street-drama that plays itself out at Mohali while the blockbuster resumes at Kochi after the intermission

Jai P Yadav has done well all season and needs to press on for one final push © Getty Images
It will probably be the street-drama that plays itself out at Mohali while the blockbuster resumes at Kochi after the intermission. Yet, the Ranji Trophy final between Punjab and Railways, beginning tomorrow, promises to be a tense, albeit low-key, battle. And if the Elite Group final gets little attention, you can be sure the Plate Final - between Haryana and Services - that also starts on the same day, will be banished to the back pages.
Punjab will be without Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Mongia, both chosen in the Indian one-day squad, but after conquering the odds in the semi-finals and upstaging Mumbai at the Wankhede Stadium, they still start as favourites.
In a remarkable turnaround, Railways managed to avoid the threat of relegation, scrape into the semi-finals and then surge into the final after a comprehensive win over Hyderabad. Relying on collective effort rather than individual brilliance, Railways overcame a sluggish start to the season with two inspired wins over Andhra and Karnataka, both away from home, and sneaked into the semis through the back door.
Punjab were much more consistent all year. Intikhab Alam, their new coach, appeared to have added the cladding of steel and their faster bowlers - Gagandeep Singh, VRV Singh and Amit Uniyal - consistently posed problems. A close defeat at Hyderabad was the only blip all season and Ravneet Ricky and Reetinder Sodhi led the way in a strong batting order while Pankaj Dharmani provided the solidity.
Like Punjab, Railways will also rely on their medium pacers and the lively track at Mohali could suit them too. Five of the Railways players were part of the Central Zone side that triumphed in the Duleep Trophy with Jai Prakash Yadav being the outstanding performer with the ball. Harvinder Singh and Sanjay Bangar will back him up and their canny ability to move the ball in conducive conditions can prove critical. Murali Kartik's absence though may prove vital if the game enters the final day.
Both teams have won the title just once earlier - Punjab in 1993 and Railways in 2002. At the start of the season, neither might have been expected to get this far with Mumbai and Tamil Nadu, the finalists in the last two years, being the clear favourites. But after Railways' fairytale comeback and Punjab's stunning win over Mumbai - all predictions may may go out the window.