In my Ranji Trophy Preview post of November, I had predicted the following quarterfinal line-up – Rajasthan, Mumbai Punjab, Delhi, Baroda, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. While Punjab and Uttar Pradesh won resoundingly in the league stage, Mumbai and Baroda had to struggle a bit to make the grade. I clearly underestimated the strength of Saurashtra, but it were my Group C predictions that fell flat. Jharkhand and Services ultimately made the grade from that pool, the latter surprising everyone by entering the semi-finals after a spirited win over U.P in the quarterfinals.
Among the four predicted teams that did not make the cut,Rajasthan were mediocre throughout the league phase, and two-time defending champions surprisingly finished second-last in their pool. Delhi and Andhra missed out by just a point, while Himachal were below average. Three of the quarterfinals were played on extremely placid wickets, resulting in dull cricket. The fourth quarterfinal was the opposite – Services beating U.P on a sporting track, highlighting the need to prepare more such tracks for knockout fixtures. Services are fast becoming what Rajasthan were two years back, but whether they go all the way as well remains to be seen, as a tough semifinal against Mumbai awaits. Here’s a brief look at what the semi-finals, to be played from January 16-20, have in store:-
Saurashtra v Punjab at Rajkot
Ravindra Jadeja and Cheteshwar Pujara have been quite merciless on the opposition bowlers this season, and have been the pillars of Saurashtra’s impressive performance. But the catch is, both these men are likely to miss the crucial semi-final, as they are on national duty with the Indian ODI squad. Punjab will look to cash in on this opportunity, and their batsmen will relish the Rajkot pitch – notably young Jiwanjot Singh, who has had an outstanding debut season – averaging 70 in 9 matches with 5 hundreds. Punjab have a better bowling unit than the home team, and that might just be a factor in deciding the game, and their captain Harbhajan Singh will be itching to prove a point to the national selectors that all has not faded as far his bowling prowess is concerned.
Services v Mumbai at Delhi
The Services have an opportunity to create another upset, following their showing in the quarterfinal. This time, they will be playing in the comforts of their home ground at Palam in Delhi. Their gutsy match-winning captain Soumik Chatterjee is set to miss the semi-final due to the knee injury he suffered in that game, but surely Services will go all out, considering the pressure to perform will be more on the 39-times champions Mumbai. Mumbai will have the big guns like Sachin Tendulkar, Wasim Jaffer, Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar in their ranks, and start as overwhelming favourites. As much as I want Services to win this one, there is no doubt that to challenge Mumbai, they will need someone to put up as inspiring a performance as Chatterjee displayed in the quarterfinal.
Players To Watch Out For
Jiwanjot Singh started his first class career by scoring 213 against Hyderabad two months back, and he has since been one of the most consistent performers this season. With a brilliant conversion rate (5 hundreds and 1 fifty in 9 games), Punjab will hugely bank on this youngster to deliver the goods again, more so on a flat pitch. Services’ paceman Suraj Yadav has had an impressive run of late, and he seems to be improving with every game, as his 7-wicket haul in the quarterfinal proved. With 23 sticks in the last 3 matches, Yadav is one man who can pose a threat to the highly experienced Mumbai batting line-up.
Saurashtra would have been my potential final entrants had it not been for the absence of Jadeja and Pujara. So Punjab hold the edge here, due to a more complete bowling unit. In the second semifinal, Mumbai are expected to come up trumps in spite of the ‘giant-killer’ threat that the Services possess. Thus, I foresee a Mumbai v Punjab finale this season.