MOHAMMED KAIF and Co would not only be carrying the hopes of lakhs of Uttar Pradesh cricket fans but would also be chasing a dream of past greats from the state like Gyanendra Pandey, Ashish Winston Zaidi and Rizwan Shamshad, when they take on Delhi in the five-day Ranji Trophy final, beginning in Mumbai on January 16.
The trio was the part of UP's maiden Ranji Trophy win in 2005-06 and would be present at the Wankhede Stadium for the final in the capacity of coach, manager and selector respectively.
"It's going to be a great moment for us if the boys regain the trophy," said manager-cum-bowling coach Zaidi on phone from Mumbai on Monday. "After playing for the state for almost 18 years, I would love to see the boys clinch the trophy again. The win here would not only establish our supremacy in the domestic circuit, but will also help more UP boys get the attention of the national selectors," said Zaidi, adding, "We are all determined to repeat our 2005-06 performance."
The season this year has been a roller-coaster for UP as they bounced back after literally scraping the bottom. It was their grit and determination, which helped them make it to the final for the fourth time in the 74-year-old history of Ranji Trophy.
Certainly the credit goes to the boys --- especially skipper Kaif --- who despite all odds and a poor system in the state, have led the side to the final for the second time in the last three years.
Uttar Pradesh had made it to the Ranji final for the first time in 1977-78 and lost to Karnataka. They were again humbled by Karnataka in the 1997-98 season, but finally won the title in 2005-06 beating Bengal.
The boys would not be short on enthusiasm when they take on a spirited Delhi, who have won the coveted trophy five times, besides finishing runners-up on six occasions. Delhi won the last title in 1991-92.
Besides relying on the team's strength, UP cricketers also know that they have enjoyed high success rate at the Wankhede Stadium. In 1997-98, they clinched a thrilling three-wicket win against hosts Mumbai, and the stars of that match were Zaidi (6 for 29), Obaid Kamal (5 for 58), Gyanendra Pandey (109 and 45) and Rizwan Shamshad (64).
In the 2005-06 season, they again beat Mumbai by five wickets in the semifinal. Praveen Kumar (4 for 34 & 3 for 68), Shalabh Srivastava (3 for 40) and Zaidi (4 for 62) excelled with the ball, while Shamashad (72) and Kaif (64 & 64) did well with the willow.
"Certainly, we have the advantage of winning key ties on this ground in the past," said coach Pandey, adding, "We are not taking the rivals lightly, and we are banking on our strengths and luck to guide us to title."
He said that the bowling attack, which looked a bit inexperienced before the start of the season, had matured now. And leading the pack is the lanky Sudeep Tyagi, who is likely to end the season with the highest number of wickets. He has, till now, taken 39 wickets at 19.84 and looks to swell that tally.
All-rounder Praveen Kumar, with 28 wickets at 16.42, has the next best tally. Kumar, who missed the first two matches, came back superbly and duly enhanced his reputation of being one of the hardest workers on the field among the pace bowlers in domestic cricket. The two would surely be expecting the spin duo of Piyush Chawla and Praveen Gupta to continue supporting them in the last and most important match of the season.