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Mumbai takes on Tamil Nadu

By Sanjay Rajan

— Photo: N. Balaji

LOOKING AHEAD: Mumbai coach Chandrakant Pandit (left), Vinod Kambli and skipper Sairaj Bahutule inspect the pitch at the Chidambaram Stadium.

CHENNAI, MARCH 25. You could see the determined look in their eyes as they arrived at the Chidambaram Stadium for practice on Thursday. Into their psyche is drilled a sense of occasion.

It was at this very venue that the West Zone powerhouse — the defending Ranji Trophy champion, Mumbai, began the season on a jarring note, by losing its Irani Trophy face-off against Rest of India.

"We hope to end on a winning note this time, though," said coach Chandrakant Pandit, on the eve of the five-day final against Tamil Nadu.

This is Mumbai's 39th appearance in a title clash; and Tamil Nadu's 10th. It is the second consecutive final featuring the two teams.

Thirty five-time-winner Mumbai has lost only twice to two-time champion Tamil Nadu in 17 meetings.

The present Mumbai skipper, Sairaj Bahutule, was part of both the squads. "The wicket at Tirunelveli in the 1996 quarterfinal was a devil of a turner. We didn't bat too well in the pre-quarterfinal clash at Chennai in'02 either," said the former Test leg-spinner.

Bahutule, who returned a match-haul of 10 wickets in the semifinal against Hyderabad, believes that the pitch might favour batting, and assist spin on the last two days. It is Bahutule's first full season as skipper and he said, "It feels good to lead the side into the final." And he is keen to join the elite list of successful captains.

The visiting side has two frontline speedsters in Avishkar Salvi and Munaf Patel and experienced spinners in left-arm Nilesh Kulkarni and the captain himself. Missing, however, is a quality off-spinner, which could prove crucial, considering that six of the Tamil Nadu players are left-handers.

"We couldn't find an ideal replacement for Ramesh Powar. I guess, Nilesh and I will have to do it ourselves," said Bahutule. The all-round ability of Ajit Agarkar will not be at hand too. The two played a major role in last year's triumph.

"But then, we are quite used to this. We are proud to see our mates in the National team. It also provides opportunities for the juniors to experience the big stage."

The top-half batting has certainly performed better than last year, when the lower-order guided by Powar, had to prop up the total repeatedly. Vinod Kambli and Vinayak Mane scored centuries in the semifinal, while Amol Muzumdar notched up a half-century. Add the talented Wasim Jaffer to the group, and you have an impressive line-up.

For Tamil Nadu, Hemang Badani returned from Pakistan on Thursday night. This will further bolster, what is already, arguably, the strongest batting side in domestic cricket.

Incidentally, Badani has scored centuries against Mumbai on the last two occasions. "I am looking forward to the final. We haven't won the title in a long time," said Badani.

Talking about his Pakistan experience the left-hander said, "The reception was overwhelming. The title triumph was exciting."

Medium-pacer M.R. Shrinivas has recovered from his injury and will lend experience to the new-ball attack. However, strike bowler L. Balaji's services will be sorely missed. The spin department revolves largely around left-arm Ramkumar.

The S. Suresh-led team has the home advantage; it obviously knows the conditions better.

Mumbai's strength is discipline. "It's the home stretch now," said Pandit.

"It's a battle of the mind," countered home coach B. Arun.

The teams (from):

Tamil Nadu: S. Suresh (capt.), S. Ramesh, S. Sriram, H.K. Badani, S. Badrinath, S. Sharath, K.D. Kaarthick (wk), S. Vidyut, R. Ramkumar, R. Naresh, C. Ganapathy, K.S. Vasudeva Das, S. Viswanathan, M.R. Shrinivas and R. Jesuraj. Coach: B. Arun.

Mumbai: S. Bahutule (capt), V. Kambli, W. Jaffer, V. Mane, B. Thakkar, A. Muzumdar, V. Samant (wk), U. Malvi, N. Kulkarni, A. Salvi, M. Patel, R. Morris, V. Indulkar, M. Joglekar and R. Thakur. Coach: C. Pandit.

Umpires: S.K. Porel (Kol) and M.S. Mahal (Ludhiana). Match referee: R. Desraj (Del).

Hours of play: 9.30 a.m. to 12 noon, 12.40 p.m. to 2.40 p.m., 3 p.m. to 4.30 p.m.

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