IT WILL be a tussle between two unexpected qualifiers when Uttar Pradesh take on Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy semi-final here, at the Moti Bagh Stadium from Saturday.
Having begun with a bang against Orissa, Uttar Pradesh bungled big time against Andhra Pradesh and Punjab and were humiliated by Baroda at home. But beating Bengal and Hyderabad away, they made a difficult task look simple and emerged Group B toppers. It's been a campaign oscillating between extremes, one similar to the one in 2005-06 when they were Ranji Trophy champions for the first time.
On the other hand, Saurashtra, with three outright wins and the No 2 position in the group, surprised everyone with their progress. What made their march even more creditable was that they played away from home all season.
For UP skipper Mohammed Kaif (562 runs) and his deputy Suresh Raina (555 runs) were major run-getters and also carried the day for an inconsistent batting line-up. Raina has also struck a fine double hundred against Orissa. Leg-spinner Piyush Chawla and all-rounder Praveen Kumar too have chipped in with some useful runs.
UP, however, will miss Tanmay Srivastava, who is on a tour of South Africa with India under-19 side. "Yes, we will definitely miss Tanmay as opener as he was in good form but this provides an opportunity for the reserve players," Kaif said.
"We have a balanced side which has delivered in crunch situations in last two matches," Kaif added.
With Sudeep Tyagi in full cry, it was been UP's bowling in the main which has taken them this far. Debutant Tyagi took 10 wickets against Orissa and 31 in the six games so far. Chawla has 27 and Praveen Kumar (20 wickets from four matches) and left-arm spinner Praveen Gupta (16 wickets from three matches) have also delivered when it mattered most.
Saurashtra have depended on Cheteshwara Pujara, whose 796 runs at an average of 88.44 (with three centuries and three fifties) has been the season's highest, and the seasoned Sitanshu Kotak (527 runs, 47.90 average, two centuries, two fifties). They will miss all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja who too is in South Africa. The bowling is led by 25-year-old left-hand seamer Sandeep Jobanputra who took 32 wickets.
"Our boys are playing good cricket and I am not worried about presence of big names in UP team. Last year too we played against them in Kanpur and I think that team was stronger. Yet we managed to take first innings lead," coach Debu Mitra said.
UP: Mohammed Kaif (captain), Suresh Raina (vice-captain), Ravikant Shukla, Rohit Prakash, Anshul Kapoor, Parminder Singh, Sudeep Tyagi, Mohd Abid Khan, Tahir Abbas, Mohd Amir Khan (wicket-keeper), Rahat Elhai, Praveen Gupta, Piyush Chawla, Praveen Kumar, Bhuvnesh Kumar. Coach: Gyannedra Pandey.
Saurashtra: Jaidev Shah (captain), Chateshwar Pujara, Shitanshu Kotak, Rakesh Dhruv, KM Vaghela, Sagar Jogiyani (wicket-keeper), Firoz Bambhiyani, Sandeep Jobanpura, N Rathore, Sandip Maniar, P Mehta, Kamlesh Makvana, Chirag Pathak, Bhushan Chauhan, Jayesh Odedra. Coach: Debu Mitra.