December 21, 2021 was a landmark day for Himachal Pradesh cricket. They won their first domestic title that day, upstaging star-studded Tamil Nadu in the Vijay Hazare Trophy final.
On Saturday, they will have an opportunity to add another chapter to what has been a magical year. At stake is the opportunity to be crowned T20 champions when they take on Mumbai in the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy at Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
It was only two seasons ago that Mumbai hit the nadir in T20 cricket, finishing last in their group. It sparked a revamp of sorts, with the team bouncing back to win the 50-over competition that followed. Red-ball success took a while, but they began playing like the Mumbai of old when they made the Ranji Trophy final earlier this year.
From the depths of 2020-21 to now, there’s been a massive change in their approach, amid calls for sweeping changes to their selection policies and cricket structure. Some credit should be given to Amol Muzumdar, their former captain, who has transformed a team from the ruins to one that is fighting to be the formidable force they once were.
Mumbai’s batting line-up is among the most intimidating going around. Prithvi Shaw and Sarfaraz Khan are determined to break selection doors down, Shreyas Iyer is hungry to prove he’s no T20 pushover, especially after being ignored for the T20 World Cup, and Yashasvi Jaiswal is fast climbing up the ladders to be among the next-in-line openers.
Ajinkya Rahane, the captain, has been told in no uncertain terms he needs to score more runs in domestic cricket to be considered for India again. In that sense, every member of the batting line up has something at stake as far as their future is concerned. Saturday is a great opportunity for them to come together for one massive show of strength to help Mumbai clinch their maiden T20 crown.
Himachal Pradesh will be riding on the momentum they’ve built superbly during the course of the season. From having two of their matches washed out to progressing despite knowing every game is a must-win is commendable. Theirs is a team of seasoned campaigners who have slowly built on their experience of playing together as a group for a while now.
Prashant Chopra and Ankush Bains are nearly decade-old veterans, as is captain Rishi Dhawan, who continues to pick wickets and score runs season after season. That the next gen is closely being followed by IPL scouts is validation of the talent coming through.
Among them are Vaibhav Arora, whose most recent IPL stint was with Punjab Kings after being picked up by Kolkata Knight Riders last year, and has bristling pace. Pankaj Jaswal was scouted by Mumbai Indians as an X-factor player who they believe can be honed to play the role Hardik Pandya did for many years.
Their recent success is also a byproduct of improved infrastructure in the hilly state. From having one main ground – the HPCA Stadium in 2013 – they now have 50 turf wickets across eight centres in the state. It’s no coincidence that Himachal have continued to develop across men’s and women’s cricket because of this. The emergence of Renuka Singh as one of India Women’s frontline seamers is as much because of this as fast bowler Arora’s is.
On Saturday, the accrual of all these gains could yet be on display when they play a seemingly strong Mumbai. Himachal are the underdogs without an inkling of doubt, but they’re unlikely to be perturbed by tags given to them. After all, many years ago, there weren’t many who would have even given them a chance to get this far to be a rising force in Indian domestic cricket.
It’s all set up then for a fascinating contest.
Mumbai WWWLW (last five completed matches, most recent first) Himachal Pradesh WWWWW
In the spotlight
Prithvi Shaw is second on the tournament’s run charts, behind Delhi’s Yash Dhull, but 189 of his 321 runs have come in two innings, against relatively modest attacks (Mizoram and Assam) early in the tournament. Normally reticent, he has been vocal about his disappointment of missing the India bus and the work he’s done in terms of his fitness to warrant selection. After a brief lull, he showed signs of form during the course of a blistering 21-ball 32 that set up Mumbai’s chase in the semi-final against Vidarbha. A big knock in the final in front of the national selectors won’t be a bad way to send out a message.
Among the most prolific allrounders in Indian domestic cricket, Rishi Dhawan has gone wicketless in just one of the six games Himachal have played. His 11 wickets have come at an average of 13.72 and economy of 7.19. He bowls in the early 130s, but accuracy and control over his variations, especially a potent cutter, are his USP. All these elements were a key part of his 3 for 25 that derailed Punjab in the semi-final. Can he bowl Himachal to a second title win in a short span?
With such a short turnaround time, it’s unlikely both teams will make too many tweaks to their winning combination.
It’s the onset of winter in the far east, where the light dips sharply by 4.30pm. And so much of the game will be played under lights. That means dew will certainly play a part at some stage, impacting at least the team defending a score in the second half of the innings. This makes the toss all the more vital. Purely from a batting perspective, the surfaces have been full of runs. So, expect it to be a high-scoring contest.
Stats and trivia
Among those who have made at least 300 runs in a single edition of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Prithvi Shaw’s strike rate of 183.42 in this edition is the second highest. Rishabh Pant struck at 195.71 in 2017-18.
Himachal Pradesh have won all six completed matches they’ve played so far in the tournament (two of their games were abandoned). If they win the final, they’ll be only the fifth team after Bengal (2010-11), Uttar Pradesh (2015-16), Karnataka (2018-19) and Tamil Nadu (2020-21) to win the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy without dropping a single game.