Mumbai: History and form make them the odds-on favourites but Mumbai are not taking things for granted ahead of Saturday’s Ranji Trophy summit showdown with Saurashtra, who have upset many an apple cart en route to the final here.
The sheer weight of having senior cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, captain Ajit Agarkar and Wasim Jaffer along with top performers like Abhishek Nayar and wicketkeeper Aditya Tare in their ranks tilts the scale heavily in favour of the 39-time champions.
West Zone rivals Saurashtra, who have advanced to the summit clash for the first time, are the underdogs in the five-day clash on a wicket that is believed to be loaded heavily in favour of the pace bowlers, at least initially.
However the hosts, who have lost just four finals out of the 43 they had figured in, in the long history of the national championship, are not taking things for granted.
"I am very happy with the way it has gone for us, from struggling a bit to qualifying and being in the final. Saurashtra, obviously, is a tough opposition who we cannot underestimate," said Agarkar at the pre-match media conference.
"It`s a one-off game and we need to be at our best. Looking forward to the game," said the wiry former India pacer who had notched up an important century against Services in the semi-final at the Palam ground in New Delhi.
Saurashtra skipper, Jaydev Shah, said that it was very important for his team to get off to a flying start.
"It`s a very big game for us. Mumbai is an experienced side. We would like to get a good start and put in best effort in the first innings)."
Shah, who had scored 87 in the semi-final at home against Punjab, said the key against Mumbai would be to score heavily and put them under pressure.
"Against Bombay you always need to score big runs and then put pressure at the start as if they don`t get a good start, they sometimes collapse. If you take a few crucial wickets in between and hold them out it will be good," he said.
It`s though, easier said than done, as Saurashtra realised in their last meeting in Rajkot in the league stage in December, when Mumbai rattled up over 600 and bowled them out for 300 to take the vital first-innings lead.
Both the teams would miss key members for the all-important clash with Saurashtra appearing the more handicapped in the absence of players like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja, both playing in the ODI rubber against England.
"They 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," Shah said.
Agarkar said, though Mumbai would miss Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma (both playing in the ODI series) and the injured Zaheer Khan, others have stepped up to do the job and there was Tendulkar to boost the team big time.
"That has been the case for a while now. We have been lucky enough to have Sachin. Does not change anything as other guys have stepped up for us and so is the case with them. We are missing some big players and so are they, but it`s an opportunity for others to try and make a mark.
"We are obviously missing Rohit, Ajinkya and Zak (Zaheer), all big players. But we have Sachin whose mere presence in the dressing room helps a lot of the younger guys. His involvement on the field is still the same since the first time I met him. We are very happy he is part of the squad," added Agarkar.
Tendulkar has played just three games this season and has contributed in each of them, scoring a ton in the league opener against Railways and in the quarter-final against Baroda, before notching up a crucial 56 against Services to help Mumbai recover from a difficult position (23-3) in the company of Nayar who made 70.
Nayar has been the stand-out batsman, notching up 940 runs at over 100 per innings, inclusive of three hundreds and eight fifties, and close behind him are Tare (839 runs), Rohit (712) and Wasim Jaffer (703).
"We have had good performances from most of the squad, and that's what you want though there have been stand-out ones like Nayar, Tare and Wasim. Everyone has chipped in at important times," said Agarkar.
Mumbai's bowling's stand-out performer has been left-arm spinner Ankit Chavan with a haul of 33 wickets in nine ties, including an incredible 9-23 in their league game here against Punjab.
Mumbai lack an off-spinner, and Agarkar insisted they have the two left-arm bowlers in Chavan and newcomer Vishal Dabholkar to turn to.
"Ramesh (Powar) has been missing for a while because of injury. We are still looking for (an off-spinner in Powar's absence), but these two left-armers have bowled well for us."
Asked about Mumbai's awesome record in finals -- they have won all nine finals they have figured in after losing by two runs to Haryana in the May 1991 final at the Wankhede -- the skipper felt it was because of their superior experience.
"I suppose it comes with experience as we have got more than one guy who have played more than one final. That generally helps in winning big games. Plus you have got the great man (Sachin). We have generally played well in finals."
Saurashtra, on the contrary, have been heavily dependent on Pujara and Jadeja in batting and their absence is likely to hit them hard though youngsters Sheldon Jackson and Aarpit Vasavada have propped up the middle-order well.
Veteran Sitanshu Kotak, who frustrated Mumbai by batting for two full days when the two teams last met at this stadium in 2007, is there to launch the innings with wicketkeeper Sagar Jogiyani.
The medium pace attack of the visitors -- comprising Jaydev Unadkat, the experienced Sidharth Trivedi and either Sandip Maniar or Saurya Sanandiya -- needs to step up against the strong Mumbai batting line-up.
Saurashtra's spin attack is, however, more varied than the home team's and comprises off-spinners Vishal Doshi and Kamlesh Makwana and left-arm spinner Dharmendra Jadeja.
According to curator Sudhir Naik, the wicket would help the pace bowlers with seam movement and bounce over the first three days before affording turn to the spinners on the last two days.
Agarkar was not sure how the wicket would behave.
"I am going to have another look as it generally changes (appearance) when the sun comes out. It was quite dewy in the morning. Probably they have had less time to prepare it than otherwise as the match got shifted here at the last minute. Women's WC matches were to be held here, so they were preparing for it.
"Hopefully, it gives both batters and bowlers good chance. That's what they always try to do," he said.
"I can't see too many changes (in playing 11) at this stage though I will have to go and have another look at the wicket," said Agarkar when asked about team composition.
"We won't play a leg spinner as the ball moves a bit here. We will play an extra medium pacer," said visiting captain Shah.
"The last time we played here we took the first-innings lead. Let's hope we take that thing with us. Kotak played a big innings (in terms of time consumed), two days or so, a record I think," he said.
The rival teams (from):
Mumbai: Ajit Agarkar (Capt.), Sachin Tendulkar, Wasim Jaffer, Suryakumar Yadav, Dhaval Kulkarni, Kaustubh Pawar, Abhishek Nayar, Hiken Shah, Aditya Tare, Ankit Chavan, Nikhil Patil (Jr.), Javed Khan, Sushant Marathe, Shardul Thakur and Vishal Dabholkar.
Saurashtra: Jaydev Shah (Capt.), Sagar Jogiyani, Sitanshu Kotak, Sheldon Jackson, Arpit Vasavada, Rahul Dave, Kamlesh Makwana, Chirag Pathak, Sidharth Trivedi, Jaydev Unadkat, Vishal Joshi, Dharmendra Jadeja, Sandip Maniyar, Saurya Sanandiya and Harsh Anghan.
Umpires: K Hariharan and O Nandan
Third umpire: Virender Sharma
Match Referee: Col. Chinmaya Sharma.
Hours of play: From 09:30 onwards.