“A Ranji Trophy final is like a dream for all of us," Gujarat captain Parthiv Patel said after the win over Jharkhand in the semi-final of the Ranji Trophy. Well, every Gujarat player is indeed living a dream this season and has been riding the crest of a massive wave.
Gujarat's Ranji cabinet has been barren. They have never won the coveted trophy in its 83-year history. The craving is palpable and the excitement too. The feeling of reaching a final after 65 years can bring immense joy and relief but there is a certain sort of anxiety that also creeps in. Gujarat are on the cusp of history but as they take on Mumbai in the final of India's premier domestic tournament, it will all come down to how well they handle pressure to end the 83-year-wait.
Gujarat have been unbeaten in the tournament so far, with two wins and five draws, and have conceded first innings leads just twice this season. They ended second behind Mumbai in the group stages. There is no doubt they have performed above expectation but final is a different ball game altogether. It won't be about winning the match; it will be about winning hours and sessions. And this is where Gujarat's mettle will be tested.
What separates the two sides is big-match experience. Mumbai have done it over and over again. They have reached 45 finals before this and won 41 of them. A staggering win percentage of 91. Out of that, 34 have been outright victories and just seven have been won on first innings lead. It indicates that Mumbai are a different beast altogether in finals and force the opponents into submission with ruthless efficiency.
They are the defending champions and in the final last season, they destroyed Saurashtra by an innings to end the trophy drought which lasted two whole seasons. Nothing less than the title is, therefore, acceptable and this 'khadoos' (ruthless) attitude is what brings out the best in the Mumbai players and sets them apart. It's important that Gujarat don't get overawed by the occasion but it's also crucial that they don't allow their nerves to jangle.
The best part about Gujarat's campaign is that they faced their biggest challenge just recently, in their last match, against Jharkhand. It was just the second time in the tournament that they had conceded a first innings lead and that too in a knockout scenario, but they went on to win the game comfortably which allows them to take the confidence as well as momentum into the final.
No Mumbai batsman is in top-10, 20 or even 30 of the run-scorers' list. No Mumbai bowler is anywhere near the top-10 wicket-takers' list. It's a rare occurrence, and is hardly believable, but what really matters is that Mumbai are in the final and it's a testament to the team effort they have put in.
They have managed to win crunch moments and delivered under pressure. Every now and then some player or the other has put his hand up when the others have failed, and pushed the team past the finish line. Senior pros – captain Aditya Tare and Abhishek Nayar's roles have been crucial. They have shown the way for the youngsters in the team with gutsy performances to bail the team out from perilous situations.
Nayar will be the biggest threat for Gujarat because of his penchant for big-match performances. He averages 42.86 with the bat and 22.38 with the ball in knockouts. Three out of his five five-fors have come in the knockouts. He's been a mentor to this young side and one who has instilled tremendous confidence inside the dressing room. Tare's 'keeping has stood out and he needs just two dismissals to break his own record for most dismissals (47) by a 'keeper in a Ranji season which he set in 2015-16.
The heroic arrival of 17-year-old Prithvi Shaw – who became the second youngest Mumbai player after Sachin Tendulkar to score a century on Ranji debut – has provided much-needed relief with opening partnerships floundering.
Before the semis, Mumbai had just two fifty-plus opening stands, but in the semis, in a tricky chase, Shaw and Praful Waghela put up 90 for the first wicket in the fourth innings. That opener Akhil Herwardkar might be back from the injury will soothe some nerves. Shreyas Iyer has endured a mediocre season and will be raring to go in the season finale.
Partnerships have been a concern for Mumbai this season. Mumbai have stitched together just 10 century stands for any wicket this season, of which two came in the semis against Tamil Nadu. Just three of those have been by the top order (one to four) while seven of them have been by the lower middle order (five to eleven), which makes crease occupation and a better performance by the top order the need of the hour.
Mumbai's biggest challenge would be to stop the Gujarat batting juggernaut. The Gujarat batsmen have put on a solid display with an average of 357 runs per innings – the highest by any team. They are the only team with two 600-plus totals in the tournament. Before this, only Parthiv had scored 800-plus runs in a Ranji season (2012-13), but this time around there have been two of them on that list – Priyank Panchal and Samit Gohel.
Panchal has finally realised his potential in his eight-year journey and is currently the highest run-getter this season by far, with 1,270 runs at a staggering average of 97.69. Opener Gohel shot to fame with 359 against Odisha which broke the world record for the highest score by an opener carrying his bat in first-class cricket. The duo have been the cornerstone of the Gujarat batting line-up and Gujarat will hope they deliver on the biggest stage.
The good thing about Mumbai is that they haven't been overdependent on their lynchpin Shardul Thakur. While injuries haven't helped, in absence of Dhawal Kulkarni, rookies Vijay Gohil (27 wickets) and Tushar Deshpande (21 wickets) have taken up the responsibility to drive Mumbai's bowling.
Senior pro RP Singh and Jasprit Bumrah, on the other hand, have been the chief architects of Gujarat's win over Jharkhand in the semi-final. However, Bumrah, who looked in good touch, will miss out on the final as he will be on national duty for the ODI series against England and that could prove to be crucial. In his absence, Gujarat will rely on left-arm pacer Rush Kalaria who has been their highest wicket-taker this season with 26 wickets.
Earlier this year, the Holkar stadium hosted it's maiden Test, between India and New Zealand. The pitch held up well throughout the match and didn't deteriorate much. The Indore track is considered to be one of the best in the domestic circuit and has good bounce. That, combined with the early morning wind, might entice the captains to play an extra seamer. Mumbai could bring in Deshpande in place of Akshay Girap or they might have a toss-up between Balwinder Sandhu and Deshpande.
Mumbai haven't been at their dominating best this season. They have jousted their way back into the contests from precarious situations. However, a comprehensive win over Tamil Nadu in the semi-final showed glimpses of the old Mumbai and the havoc they can wreak. They will aim for title-winning consistency while Gujarat would be craving for that special win. It's the big match experience that gives Mumbai the upper hand. A 42nd title would mean the culmination of a relatively smooth transition at the cost of Gujarat's heartbreak.
With stats inputs from Sampath Bandarupalli