Mumbai: At the helm of a side with an unmatched, abiding Ranji Trophy legacy, Ajit Agarkar is not belittling the challenge that outsiders Saurashtra pose in what would be Mumbai’s 44th final. The domestic giants have won India’s premier competition 39 times and look favourites to add another title against an outfit playing its first summit clash, at the Wankhede Stadium, beginning on Saturday.
But skipper Agarkar said on the eve of the contest that they would be fools to underestimate the rivals.
"It's a one-off game and we need to be at our best. Whoever performs better these five days will take the honours. Any team that makes the final cannot be an easy opponent,” he said.
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Agarkar struck a rare, vital century – just his fourth in First Class cricket – against Services in the semi-final, to resurrect Mumbai from a dicey situation. Notwithstanding that rickety start on a cold morning at the Palam ground, batting has always been the home team’s strength.
Heavyweights Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Jaffer have been in fine form, southpaw Abhishek Nayar is closing in on a thousand runs for the season, while wicket-keeper batsman Aditya Tare is only marginally behind in the annual tally.
What makes Mumbai even bigger favourites is that Saurashtra will be missing their best batsmen in the final. Domestic gargantuan Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja are both away on national duty as their side faces its biggest contest against terrifyingly overwhelming opposition.
“It's a very big game for us. Mumbai is an experienced side. We would like to get a good start and put in our best effort in the first innings. Against Mumbai you always need to score big runs and then put pressure at the start. If they don't get a good start, they sometimes collapse. If you take a few crucial wickets in between and hold them out it will be good,” said Saurashtra captain Jaydev Shah.
Like his counterpart Agarkar, Shah made his presence felt in the semi-final, against Punjab at Rajkot, with an important 87. The last time the two teams met – during the league stage in December - Mumbai amassed a total north of 600, thanks to Tare’s double ton, and bowled Saurashtra out for 300 for the match-deciding first innings lead.
Saurashtra were without Pujara and Jadeja in that game too, a situation that persists to this day.
“We can't help it as they are playing for India. If they were part of the team we would have been mentally up and the opponents would have felt more pressure. But we have to fight without them," Shah said.
Not like Mumbai will go in with their first-choice selection. They will be without Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma, as well as the injured left-arm spearhead Zaheer Khan and off-spinner Ramesh Powar.
“We are obviously missing Rohit, Ajinkya and Zak (Zaheer), all big players. But we have Sachin whose mere presence in the dressing room helps a lot of the younger guys,” said Agarkar.
Tendulkar has made an impact in each of the three Ranji games he has played this season. He scored a century apiece against Railways and Baroda, and then made 56 in difficult conditions against Services in the semifinal. The maestro’s presence - and hence the assured crowd turn out - has impelled the Maharashtra Cricket Association to levy an entry fee to the ground for final.
The pitch is expected to have a little something for bowlers in the early stages, and then ease out for batting. Win the toss, bat first, pile on the runs and hope for the first innings lead is likely to be the preferred strategy.