Mumbai: With their superior all-round strength, Baroda appear to hold a slight edge over unbeaten Uttar Pradesh and seem well-poised to grab their third Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy when the two teams clash under lights in the final of the domestic T20 competition here today.
Baroda have lost two games out of 9 in the competition - to Delhi in the Preliminary League stage and then to Kerala in the Super League - this season, while UP have won all their 8 matches thus far. But man-to-man Baroda seem to hold the advantage over their rivals, in both batting and bowling, in the summit contest at the Wankhede Stadium.
All rounders Hardik Pandya, who will leave for Australia on January 22 to join the Indian team ahead of the T20 series Down Under, and India discard Irfan Pathan, the team skipper, have been in the forefront of Baroda's campaign. Pandya has shone more with the bat, amassing 364 runs including two whirlwind, six-hitting knocks against Delhi and Vidarbha, while also grabbing nine wickets in nine games.
Left-handed Pathan, on the other hand, has impressed more with the ball by grabbing 16 wickets in nine games in which he has totalled 190 runs. Both these players have been crucial to the progress of Baroda who, however, would expect a bit more from two other all-rounders -- Deepak Hooda and Yusuf Pathan. Both have failed to prosper so far.
Baroda, champions in 2011-12 and 2013-14, also have a capable spinner in Bhargav Bhatt, and give the appearance of a well-balanced outfit. UP's batting has been a bit inconsistent with Eklavya Dwivedi being the most impressive of the lot with an aggregate of 258 runs in 8 games at 64 per innings.
Prashant Gupta and Samarth Singh have been the other two batsmen among the runs, but the big disappointment has been Australia-bound T20 specialist Suresh Raina who has made just 111 runs in five games with 28 as his highest.
The left-hander will be required to fire big if UP, who have never won the title, are to upset Baroda's bid to regain the trophy after the gap of one season. In bowling, while experienced former India leg-spinner Piyush Chawla has been the stand-out performer (15 wickets in 8 games), the crafty Praveen Kumar (5 wickets in 7), another national discard, has not done as much as was expected.
Praveen has been outshone by Ankit Rajpoot (11 wickets in 8). UP would thus be hoping that their misfiring key players - Raina and Praveen - have reserved their best for the tournament finale that commences at 6:30 PM. UP captain Raina, who has not been in the best of touch so far, said he was keen to do well before boarding the
flight to Australia to join the national team for the T20 Internationals beginning Down Under next week.
"Personally, it's important for me to play well here before going to Australia and I am looking forward to do well tomorrow. I have seen the three (ODI) games they (India) have played (against Australia and lost). (But) the T20 team is different," he said.
He was referring to the departure of himself, Pandya and three other senior cricketers - Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Ashish Nehra - who will board the flight to Australia. "They (Indian team members in Australia) must be looking forward to our arrival. Over the whole of the next four months we will play T20. People think it's easy to play Twenty20 but the intensity and energy is huge. You have to play big shots. You have to practice a lot. Practice makes a lot of difference," he remarked.
Talking about the final (between Baroda and UP), Raina said playing under lights in cooler, windy conditions would help the seam bowlers to swing the ball. "Luckily we had won all three tosses (in league stage) but tomorrow it will be different challenge and I am looking forward to a good competition. The team that panics will lose.
"It's a night game and the ball will swing. It will be good for seamers. We have good bowlers in PK (Praveen Kumar) (Amit) Mishra, (Ankit) Rajpoot. Our spinners Piyush (Chawla) and Kuleep Yadav have also bowled well," he said. "Not many players in our team have played much under lights, even in IPL. That's why we practiced under lights today," he added.
Irfan Pathan said UP will provide a tough challenge. "UP has a fantastic team. (Suresh) Raina has been one of the prolific run-scorers in T20 cricket. And there are other guys like Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla and a lot of other young cricketers as well who are doing well so. It's a pretty even contest tomorrow.
"I believe that in the final who ever hits the mark really well and executes their plans well will be the champion team." said the Baroda skipper. "It means a lot to me and everyone in the team to be here in the final. For me personally it means probably everything because this is the highest level of cricket at the moment I am playing. Everyone wants to go one step ahead I want to do that as well. this match tomorrow will mean a lot to me," the 31-year-old all-rounder added.