Mumbai, Jan. 26 -- The Mumbai cricket fraternity is aware of the extraordinary batting ability of Cheteshwar Pujara. And, no one knows it better than the Mumbai coach, Sulakshan Kulkarni.
It was during Kulkarni's time as coach of the Indian Oil Corporation that Pujara started playing for the local outfit. Such was his run-scoring spree, that after a few games, his teammates started calling him 'Don Bradman'.
As Kulkarni's team gears up to take on Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy final, one doubts if anyone in his camp is complaining about missing the services of Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane. For, in the bargain, the visitors will be without Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja - all four being on national duty for the one-day series against England.
On the basis of their record, depth and home advantage, the 39-time champions Mumbai will be the favourites in the title clash starting on Saturday. However, it is Pujara's absence that has tilted the scale overwhelmingly in favour of the hosts, playing in their record 44th final.
Pujara was one player with the ability to single-handedly take the game away from any opposition in domestic cricket - with his last two games for Saurashtra witnessing a double and a triple hundred.
One the eve of the big game, the visitors were trying their best to look at the positives in an effort to prove that they are not just a two-man team. They can take heart from the fact that they won their semifinal in a similar situation, when they didn't have both Pujara and Jadeja against the in-form Punjab team. In the quarterfinal against Karnataka too, they didn't have the services of Jadeja.
"The two were doing very well in domestic cricket, but we can't help it as they are playing for India. If they would have been with us we would have been mentally up and the opponents would have felt more pressure. But we have to fight without them," said Saurashtra skipper Jaydev Shah.
Though Mumbai would miss Rahane, Sharma and Zaheer Khan (injured), they have the depth to find suitable replacements, and then there is the Sachin Tendulkar factor.
"We have been lucky enough to have Sachin, whose mere presence in the dressing room helps a lot of the younger guys. We are missing some big players and so are they, but it's an opportunity for others to try and make a mark," said Mumbai skipper Ajit Agarkar.
The final will be as much about skills as about who will be able to soak in the pressure - in other words, a test of big-match temperament. While the home team has proven men, who have added to the team's aura as country's premier domestic team with 39 titles, playing at this stage will be a new experience for the Saurashtra players, their first Ranji final in 75 years. Their challenge will be not to be overawed by the names and the stage.
Coach Kulkarni agreed Mumbai will have the advantage of experience of the big-match situations. "Wasim Jaffer is playing his eighth final, Agarkar seventh, not to speak of Tendulkar. Abhishek Nayar and Dhawal Kulkarni have played in a final. The understanding of what it takes to be a champion outfit definitely counts. It's about how to handle the pressure," said Kulkarni.
The coach felt the key is never to take the opposition lightly. "It's all about the result after the last ball is bowled. We respect their team, any team which has beaten Karnataka and Punjab to reach here has to have quality."
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.