Spirited Vidarbha run into mighty Mumbai in a contest of contrasts

India

Big picture – Vidarbha vs Mumbai is domestic workhorses vs domestic superstars

Is the Ranji Trophy really the finishing school for those aspiring to wear the India cap? This question has been raised several times recently, at least in the aftermath of most big selection meetings for the Test team.

Then again, look at those who have earned the Test cap at home against England. Rajat Patidar, Sarfaraz Khan, Akash Deep and Devdutt Padikkal – you can say with conviction they have taken the tougher route to the India cap, and aren’t overnight IPL sensations.

This “tougher route” brings us to Vidarbha, a team comprising unheralded players who toil away in anonymity most times, searching for corporate cricket gigs and club cricket stints in the UK during the off-season to ensure they are “cricket fit” when the domestic season comes around. A chance to play in the Ranji Trophy final for the first time since 2018-19 is as big as it can get. For most, it’s the most important game of their careers.

Mumbai, on the other hand, are the golden boys of the domestic scene: 41-time champs, who are now playing in their 48th final. A team that knows how to conquer big moments, one whose DNA has been etched with “unsuccessful season” tag if they don’t win. That’s enough pressure to carry into a game.

Most things they do are amplified, whether they like it or not. A glorious Prithvi Shaw straight drive has people comparing him to some of the legends, even if it’s just his first set of games on a comeback trail. Musheer Khan‘s impressive initiation has many wondering if he can follow in the footsteps of Sarfaraz, his older brother. Shardul Thakur’s exploits has everyone going “Lord fantastic”.

Ajinkya Rahane‘s Test career may have hit a dead end, but his legacy has been set in stone – having helmed India to one of their greatest Test series triumphs in Australia. His drive to pull through a wretched run of form – he has made 134 runs in 11 innings this Ranji season – while astutely leading the team and backing a young group to flourish could be legacy defining too, if it culminates in their 42nd title.

In short, the expectation is big. The chatter around them, even bigger.

Vidarbha have never had to content with this pressure. And the cricket they have played all season reflects that. Take the semi-final against Madhya Pradesh, where they conceded an 82-run lead and then were effectively 79 for 5 in the second innings, before Yash Rathod and Akshay Wadkar, the captain, led a stunning turnaround with a 158-run sixth-wicket stand that set MP a target of 321.

Unlike Mumbai, a relatively smaller and concentrated talent pool has served as a boon. It has helped them give a longer rope to certain players purely on potential they bring to the table. Like Atharva Taide, the opener, who has repaid the faith with 529 runs in 13 innings at 44.08 – not blockbuster, but not a minor feat either.

That Vidarbha are here without having any batter in the top 10 scorers and only one bowler in the top 10 wicket-takers tells you how they have pulled along as a team. It’s therefore a contest of two contrasts. The domestic workhorses against the domestic superstars. And on the evidence of what we’ve seen so far this season, the workhorses are primed for their time under the limelight, if anyone is willing to throw it on them.

Run to the final

Both sides finished with five wins in seven league games to top their respective groups. Mumbai beat Tamil Nadu inside three days on a green-tinged deck at home, while Vidarbha overturned a first-innings deficit to beat MP and prevent a repeat of the 2021-22 final.

Players to Watch – Umesh Yadav and Shreyas Iyer

Umesh Yadav hasn’t been in India’s Test plans for two years now, and a road back up looks increasingly unlikely. But he has continued to put the hard yards in, having featured in seven out of nine games for Vidarbha this season. He has had decent returns too – 27 wickets at 26.77. While he hasn’t picked up a five-for yet, his quick bursts have proved game changing at different stages this season for Vidarbha.

The last time Mumbai won a Ranji final (2015-16), Shreyas Iyer turned the game around with a swashbuckling century on a green top in Pune against Saurashtra. Eight years later, Iyer comes into another Ranji final under different circumstances. Having lost his central contract recently, with questions raised over his desire for Test cricket, the final is as good an opportunity as any to prove the fire still burns.

Pitch and conditions

Wankhede Stadium will host the final on what is confirmed to be a fresh surface. Mumbai have rolled out green-tinged decks for each of their two knockout fixtures and have an in-form pace attack to boot. Expect a similar surface with pace and carry. Mumbai’s only loss this season, however, came at Wankhede against Uttar Pradesh.

Stats and trivia

  • Seven of the top 10 wicket-takers this season are left-arm spinners. Among them, Aditya Sarwate will be the only one featuring in the Ranji final. He has currently picked up 40 wickets at an average of 17.37. Two more wickets will take him straight to the second spot.
  • For the first time since 1971 – when Bombay beat Maharashtra – the Ranji final pits two teams from the same state geographically. Vidarbha have won both their previous finals. Mumbai have won 41 of their 47 finals.
  • Karun Nair’s 328 is the highest individual score in a Ranji final. Having won the title twice, back-to-back, with Karnataka between 2013 and 2015, he will be gunning for his third title. With 616 runs in nine innings at 41.06, he is Vidarbha’s highest run-scorer this season.
  • Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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