NEW DELHI: A thin mist shrouds the Palam Cricket Ground on the eve of the second Ranji Trophy semi-final between teams from polar opposites of the domestic spectrum. It’s past 3 p.m. and yet visibility is at a premium as Services coach Raju Singh soaks in the feeble January sunlight at the fringes of the maidan, facing the vacant patch of green with a mocking half-smile. The reason for the smile may be deduced from what took place just a few hours before.
Preview: Punjab vs Saurashtra
SACHIN'S SHORT PRACTICE
This morning, Palam, an unheralded venue for an equally unheralded team, was sanctioned its place in history when Sachin Tendulkar strode out for a session of nets before the customary adulatory crowds that have marked his presence for over two decades. The stint lasted all of four balls, the last of which was delivered by young Mumbai left-arm spinner Vishal Dabholkar and died after pitching, scrunching the maestro on the toe of his boot.
On account of uneven bounce on the two practice wickets provided by the home association, Tendulkar called off batting practice in favour of throwdowns from trainer Amogh Pandit. “The practice pitch wasn't up to the mark and there was a lot of uneven bounce,” a sheepish Dabholkar later told news agencies. If this was some sort of pre-match mental battle waged by the Services think-tank, coach Singh refused to ratify.
“We don’t believe in talking. We believe in performing on the field. You’ll know tomorrow what our plan for the semi-final is. The weather here is slightly different every day, so we’ll decide in the morning what strategy to adopt,” he said. The coach also refused to clarify whether the injured captain Soumik Chatterjee will play on Tuesday.
It will take a lot of strategizing and then some for Services to reach their first Ranji final in 56 years. But of late India’s premier domestic competition has allowed for a lot of leeway for rank outsiders, a case in point being unfancied Rajasthan’s glorious title runs in the two seasons past.
Captained by the doughty Chatterjee and comprising personnel from the three arms of India’s defence, Services have nothing to lose going into the last-four clash. In a new format, they topped Group C to enter the quarterfinal, where they defeated a strong Uttar Pradesh side by five wickets. The highlight then was Chatterjee’s valiant one-legged push (an unbeaten 34 on a knee with a blood clot) for victory, as Services found themselves stumbling on 54/5 chasing 113. A call on Chatterjee’s condition will be taken on the morning of the semifinal and Soumya Ranjan Swain is likely to replace the captain if he is declared unfit to play.
Services have had other performers too in a season of rare success. Rajat Paliwal has amassed four centuries and has been getting runs at an average of 85.88; he was instrumental against Uttar Pradesh with knocks of 112 and 32 not out. Veteran stonewaller Yashpal Singh – averaging 73.20 – is on another prolific season. Medium pacer Suraj Yadav’s 41 scalps include the crucial nine in the quarter-final. The bits and pieces have started to fall in place for the servicemen. But will that be enough to hold a behemoth at bay?
Despite wizened opinion-makers predicting a fast and furious denouement to the second semifinal, Mumbai have their own troubles to factor in. They have won the Ranji Trophy an unbelievable 39 times, but began this campaign with six successive draws. They edged out Gujarat in their last league game to make the knockouts, and capitalised on a Tendulkar hundred in the quarters to move into the last four.
Mumbai’s batting is the lesser of their worries. Hiken Shah and Abhishek Nayar have been among the runs; opener Kaustubh Pawar has been a revelation; and Wasim Jaffer, who joined the team mid-way through the season, compiled a ton against Baroda in the quarter-final to set up a crucial first innings lead for his side. It’s in the bowling department that concerns arise.
Zaheer Khan has been ruled out of the semifinal owing to a calf strain, which leaves skipper Ajit Agarkar and Dhawal Kulkarni to stand up and be counted on a wicket expected to favour seam bowling. The sporadic returns of left-arm spinner Ankit Chavan, who destroyed Punjab with 9/23 late last year, are also a source of trouble.
This is the first Ranji Trophy match between these two teams since 1964. However clichéd it might sound, the battle has David versus Goliath written all over it — although Goliath has put on some flab, and slingshots are illegal within the cantonment.