The team standing between them and ultimate glory is Mumbai. © Joshua Veernathan

If there is an aura about Mumbai, it is not without reason. They have won as many titles as the rest of the country combined. © Joshua Veernathan

Forty-one of 82. An even 50%. That’s primarily the reason why Mumbai are such a feared entity in Indian domestic cricket.

First as Bombay, and now as Mumbai, with legends of the game and relative novices trying to make a name for themselves and push for higher honours, the powerhouses of Indian cricket have won as many Ranji Trophy titles as the rest of the country combined. If there is an aura about Mumbai, it is not without reason. Most teams are beaten even before the title clash begins – how else can you explain 41 victories in 45 finals? – no matter what names constitute the playing XI.

Where Mumbai are the established title-meisters, Gujarat are the underdogs, the people’s favourite, if you like. As with champion outfits or individuals, there are more people rooting against you than for you. How much the groundswell of goodwill and encouragement will, however, work in Gujarat’s favour when Parthiv Patel walks out for the toss with Aditya Tare at the Holkar Stadium on Tuesday (January 10) is open to question.

Over the last few years, Gujarat have set stall as a limited-overs force, their high point being the title triumph in last season’s 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy in Bangalore in December 2015. Their presence in the final of the top first-class competition in India has to be seen as a natural progression, one that has owed itself to smart rather than spectacular cricket with a definite reliance on their powerful batting line-up.

Gujarat’s only dalliance with the final of the Ranji Trophy came 66 seasons back, incidentally also in Indore but at the old Nehru Stadium when they were crushed by 189 runs by Holkar, the home side. That was a game in which Syed Mushtaq Ali made 187 and Chandu Sarwate 234, and HG Gaekwad returned match figures of 8 for 239, all for the hosts. That was also the game in which Jasu Patel, essentially an offspinner, scored 152 at No. 11 for Gujarat. It is debatable if any of the current members of the Gujarat squad dug up the archives for a look-see at the scorecard, but as they had their pre-match practice session, one couldn’t help but notice the strong connect with history that the otherwise modern Holkar Stadium maintains.

The pavilions are named after Captain Mushtaq Ali and CK Nayudu, the dressing rooms after Tiger Pataudi and Rahul Dravid, who was born here nearly 44 summers back – Gujarat, incidentally, occupy the Dravid dressing room, so they can lay tenuous claim to being the home side. While many of the stands on the east side are named after modern-day greats of Indian cricket, those on the west are devoted entirely to Holkar stalwarts of the past, almost all of whom played in that 1950-51 final. If Parthiv and his team needed additional inspiration, all they had to do was cast their eyes around the setting.

© Sunny Shinde

Gujarat will look to their batsmen to pile pressure against the Mumbai attack. © Sunny Shinde

History, though, seemed farthest from their minds as they went about their practice session on Monday morning, a pleasant January sun watching on benevolently as the team prepared for what is easily the biggest match for every member – India internationals Parthiv and RP Singh included. There wasn’t much horsing around or peals of laughter ringing across the ground. With Vijay Patel, the coach, keeping a well-couched eagle eye on the proceedings, they were clinical and professional, any sign of nerves hidden effortlessly.

Gujarat will feel the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, the paceman who tilted the semifinal against Jharkhand their way but is away on India duty now. But there is tremendous experience in the shape of RP Singh, used sparingly throughout the season but whose class outed in that same game, and good news in that Rush Kalaria seems to have made a complete recovery from the shoulder injury that kept him from batting or bowling in the second innings in Nagpur last week. In Bumrah’s absence, the choice will boil down to between Ishwar Chaudhary and Chintan Gaja as Gujarat seek to make the most of a red clay-based strip with a generous, even covering of grass.

That said, it is to their batsmen that Gujarat will look to heap the pressure on a Mumbai attack that, on paper at least, is unlikely to give too many people sleepless nights. The lack of perceived potency hasn’t prevented Mumbai from stacking up five outright wins from 10 games, but their leading wicket-taker, left-arm spinner Vijay Gohil, has just 27 scalps from six games in his debut season. Up against Mumbai is a Gujarat line-up that includes two of the five triple-centurions this season in Priyank Panchal and Samit Gohel. Panchal is the leading scorer this year with 1270 runs, Gohel has 889 and Manprit Juneja has weighed in with 628. Mumbai, mighty Mumbai, have their task cut out.

But Mumbai have always – almost always – found a way out. Only Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav have crossed 600 runs, barely, and apart from Gohil, no one has touched the 25-wicket mark. Dhawal Kulkarni, their pace spearhead, has played only three matches and will miss the final too with fluid in his knees, and they have had multiple issues with opening pairs, which partially explains why they have had to use 23 players thus far. But at the crunch, they have always found a hero – Tare on multiple occasions, Abhishek Nayar in the knockouts and Prithvi Shaw, looking far younger than his 17 years, in the semifinal against Tamil Nadu.

Akhil Herwadkar, the opener back in the mix after recovering from a ligament injury, will undergo a fitness test which will determine if he replaces Praful Waghela in the playing XI. Herwadkar’s last competitive game was in November, when Mumbai conceded the first-innings lead to Gujarat in Hubli. Those bragging rights will count for little going into the final.

Mumbai’s spirit and spunk, fuelled by a fierce determination and driven by a legacy rich on history and silverware and channelled by Chandrakant Pandit, the no-nonsense coach, is what Gujarat will be most wary of. They might have the resources to trade punches, but whether they have the self-belief is what will determine if we have a first-time winner, or if the Mumbai hegemony continues.

Teams (likely):
Mumbai: Prithvi Shaw, Akhil Herwadkar/Praful Waghela, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Aditya Tare (capt, wk), Siddhesh Lad, Abhishek Nayar, Shardul Thakur, Tushar Deshpande, Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Vijay Gohil.

Gujarat: Priyank Panchal, Samit Gohel, Bhargav Merai, Parthiv Patel (capt, wk), Manprit Juneja, Rujul Bhatt, Chirag Gandhi, Rush Kalaria, RP Singh, Hardik Patel, Ishwar Chaudhary/Chintan Gaja.