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Punjab pacers hold the key

March 17, 2005 18:15 IST

The average age of the side is around 24, despite two 30-year-olds in the team. They have reached the Ranji Trophy semi-finals for the first time since the Elite and Plate divisions were introduced and will take on the most dominant team on the Indian domestic cricket set-up without their best bowler.

But the Punjab team, bustling with the energy of the twenty-some things, is taking up the challenge with a smile.

Ahead of their semi-final against hosts Mumbai at the Wankhede Stadium, starting on Friday, the general feeling in the dressing room was, 'We are ready to test ourselves against the best.'

"For many of our players it is their biggest challenge. This is the stage where they will make a name for themselves. They have to cope with a slow track, the hotter climate and take responsibility for their performance. Only then will they know whether they are ready for the next level of cricket," said captain Dinesh Mongia on Thursday.

Mumbai may have won Ranji Trophy a record 36 times and will start the game against their opponents from the north as favourites, but it will also give the home team a chance to put the record straight.

Amazingly, the two teams met only six times in the 73-year history tournament and Mumbai did not win even one of those contests. Punjab won two while four matches were drawn.

But Mumbai captain Sairaj Bahutule is not bothered.

"They have a very competitive side. We are looking forward to this game and have a full-strength side, except for Sachin Tendulkar, for the first time this season.

"Obviuosly having such a gap between matches is not the best thing to happen. But the guys are playing well, most of them played in the Duleep and Deodhar Trophy and also club and office games and are in very good nick," said Bahutule.

The Mumbai camp, which had nets at the match venue for the past one week, is also rejoicing the comeback of Aavishkar Salvi. The fast bowler was out of action for five months due to a shoulder injury. He had also injured his right shoulder in 2002.

"It's the same shoulder and the doctors think that it is getting injured because of overworking and strain," said Salvi. "But I am fully fit now. I played nine games in the last month or so and have been bowling well."  

Punjab, who have won three of their six matches outright this season, have also gained from the experience and belief instilled in them by former Pakistan leg-spinner and coach Intikhab Alam, who feels his team will face its biggest test against the 36-time champions.

"That's the purpose of cricket -- to overcome challenges like these," said Alam with a glint in his eye.

The team will also benefit from the services of left-hander Yuvraj Singh, who was cleared to play in the semi-final on Thursday afternoon, just after the team had wrapped up the two-hour morning practice session at the Wankhede stadium.

"It is great news for us. It is very good for him [Yuvraj] also, to get the chance to play in the semis. He is in good form," said Mongia.

Despite the news of Yuvraj's inclusion, Punjab's success story thus far is their new-ball bowlers. Gagandeep Singh, VRV Singh and Amit Uniyal form a formidable trio and have captured 71 wickets between themselves.

Bahutule, while conceding that the pacers are Punjab's strength, said they could be ineffective on the placid Wankhede track.

Gagandeep was picked for the India one-day side to Bangladesh and 20-year-old VRV Singh, who represented India in the under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh last year, is making waves on the domestic circuit.

"I think the transformation from under-19 to Ranji was easy. The seniors helped a lot. I have become more consistent with line and length. Even the fitness has improved," said VRV, as he is popularly known.

The skipper was also happy with the performance of the youngsters and said Rajesh Sharma could go all the way.

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"Rajesh, our off-spinner, is very good. He'll soon be as good as Harbhajan and don't be surprised if he is considered for the Indian side," said Mongia.

In the batting department too, it is former India under-19 players Ravneet Ricky and Reetinder Singh Sodhi who have impressed the most.

The Wankhede track could be Punjab's problem. It has been very slow throughout the season, affording turn right from the first day.

"I know the wicket may not be the best for fast bowling but, generally, we have good bounce on the pitch at least for the first hour. I am hoping that the bowlers will make full use of that," said Mongia.

And though the captain hadn't discussed the team composition, he said Punjab would mostly go in with five bowlers.

The hosts are also undecided whether they will play three spinners or include an all-rounder like Wilkin Mota.

The heat and humidity of Mumbai could be another concern for the visitors. The youngsters, playing in Mumbai for the first time, looked a little concerned about the high temperatures during their two-day practice game at Cricket Club of India. They have come out of cooler climes where the wickets support pace and swing.

Alam thus brought the team to Mumbai five days before the match. The players said they are slowly getting used to playing under the draining conditions.

Weaker teams have come to Mumbai this season and managed to eke out draws. Madhya Pradesh, a frail side on paper, also took two points from the game against Mumbai with a first innings lead.

"The defensive play suited a team like Madhya Pradesh but it will not necessarily be good for us. We always play attacking cricket," explained Mongia.

Whatever the strategy, Punjab will be looking to retain the smiles through the next five days. Mumbai is known as the most khadoos side in domestic cricket for quite a few reasons, and the home side, aided by their street-smart coach Chandrakant Pandit, will do everything to make their life difficult.

The defending champions, after starting the season ordinarily, surged ahead in Group A with five consecutive victories and look hungry for the title hat-trick, after almost three decades, awaiting them.

Teams from:

Mumbai: Sairaj Bahutule(Captain), Ajit Agarkar, Wasim Jaffer, Vinyak Mane, Amol Muzumdar, Vinit Indulkar, Ramesh Powar, Vinayak Samant, Nilesh Kulkarni, Aavishkar Salvi, Swapnil Hazare, Bhavin Thakkar, Wilkin Mota, Abhijeet Shetye, Nishit Shetty, Santosh Shinde.

Coach: Chandrakant Pandit.

Punjab: Dinesh Mongia(Captain), Yuvraj Singh, Pankaj Dharmani, Reetinder Sodhi, Ravneet Ricky, Ankur Kakkar, Gaurav Gupta, Navdeep Singh, Rajesh Sharma, Vineet Sharma, Gagandeep Singh, Amit Uniyal, VRV Singh, Chandan Madan, Sandeep Sanwal, Binwant Singh.

Coach: Intikhab Alam.

Deepti Patwardhan in Mumbai