It's been 15 years since Sachin Tendulkar played three Ranji Trophy games in a season. Then, he was in the midst of redefining batting in one-day cricket, giving Shane Warne nightmares in Tests and ushering India into a golden era.
This time, as he appears for his third Ranji match of the season, India are past that golden era and Tendulkar is rummaging through his 23 years of international experience to find ways of keeping his defence intact and the rhythm going.
His form is still important until India find options for their Test batting line-up. He's hit two tons in as many Ranji games, but the latest, against Baroda in the quarterfinals at the Wankhede, didn't have the class we are accustomed to. To press the point, he was bowled through the gate, his recent nemesis, well after his hundred.
With all eyes trained on him, he took throw-downs from the team trainer at the Palam grounds a day before Mumbai's Ranji Trophy semifinal against minnows Services.
To get a fair idea of the wicket, which has been tough for batsmen this season, he bowled a few leg-spinners.
Just before throw-downs, a ball from spinner Vishal Dabholkar, which almost rolled onto his feet, caught him by surprise.
Mumbai, with 39 titles, begin favourites.
Batsman Yashpal Singh, known as the best Services player not to have made to any India side (including Challengers), says this is the biggest game of his career. "It is our first semifinal (Services last played the semis in the 60s). More so, because paaji (Sachin) is playing," feels Singh.
It is a dream-come-true for the Services boys, who struggle to get into mainstream. The BCCI doesn't give institutional teams like them money as it does to other state bodies, although it ensured funds to relay the wicket and prepare the ground last year.
Mumbai skipper Ajit Agarkar didn't shy away from calling his team the favourites. "With so many titles, it has become like this." Mumbai are laden with experience and quality. The seasoned Wasim Jaffer is in form and Abhishek Nayar has been their go-to man with both bat and ball.
Services manager Deepak Bhaskar knows it is tough but he added, "Our boys are battle-hardened professionals. They have gained experience about life from their experiences in defence."
Skipper Soumik Chatterjee showed enough guts, hitting 34 despite an injured knee as Services shocked UP by five wickets in the quarterfinals.
Saurashtra take on Punjab at home
Rajkot: Having beaten Saurashtra in the league stage, Punjab would be aiming for an encore when the two sides ssquare off in the Ranji Trophy semifinals from on Wednesday at the SCA stadium, Khandheri.
Punjab captain Harbhajan Singh said he was hoping the team would continue to play good cricket.
“We have done well and therefore we are in the semifinal of the Ranji trophy and I am hoping that the team will once again play good cricket against Saurashtra," Harbhajan said. In the league match, Punjab had defeated Saurashtra but the Punjab skipper said he would not be taking the hosts lightly.
"We had done well in the previous match but Saurashtra too is a good side.”