December 21, 2021 was a milestone for cricket in Himachal Pradesh. They won their first domestic title that day, beating star-studded Tamil Nadu in the final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
On Saturday, they get the chance to add another chapter to what has been a magical year. At stake is the chance to be crowned T20 champions when they face Mumbai in the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy at Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
It had only been two seasons since Mumbai bottomed out in T20 cricket, finishing last in their group. It led to a revamp of sorts, with the team bouncing back to win the 50-over competition that followed. Red-ball’s success took a while, but they started playing like the Mumbai of yesteryear when they made the final of the Ranji Trophy earlier this year.
From the depths of 2020-21 to now, there has been a massive shift in their approach, amid calls for sweeping changes to their roster policies and cricket structure. Some credit must be given to Amol Muzumdar, their former captain, who transformed a team from the ruins into one fighting to become the formidable force they once were.
The occupation of Mumbai is one of the most intimidating out there. Prithvi Shaw and Sarfaraz Khan are determined to break roster doors, Shreyas Iyer is eager to prove he’s not a T20 puppy especially after being ignored for the T20 World Cup, and Yashasvi Jaiswal is quickly climbing the ladders to one of the next to be – line openers.
Ajinkya Rahane, the captain, has been told in no uncertain terms that he needs to score more points in domestic cricket to qualify for India again. In that sense, each member of the batting lineup has something at stake as far as their future is concerned. Saturday is a great opportunity for them to come together for a massive show of strength to help Mumbai achieve their first T20 crown.
Himachal Pradesh will ride on the momentum they have built up superbly over the course of the season. From having two of their matches flushed out to progressing despite knowing every game is a must-win is commendable. They have a team of seasoned campaigners who have been slowly building on their experience of playing together as a group for a while.
Prashant Chopra and Ankush Bains are nearly ten-year-old veterans, as is captain Rishi Dhawan, who continues to pick wickets and score runs season after season. That the next gen is closely followed by IPL scouts is a confirmation of the talent that is coming through.
Among them is Vaibhav Arora, whose most recent IPL stint was with Punjab Kings after being picked up by Kolkata Knight Riders last year, and has a fast pace. Pankaj Jaswal was scouted by Mumbai Indians as an X factor player who they believe can be honed to play the role that Hardik Pandya has played for years.
Their recent success is also a byproduct of improved infrastructure in the hilly state. From having one main venue – the HPCA Stadium in 2013 – they now have 50 turf wickets in eight centers across the state. It is no coincidence that Himachal has developed further in male and female cricket as a result. The rise of Renuka Singh as one of India Women’s frontline seamen is as good because of this as Arora’s fast bowler is.
The build-up to all these gains could still be seen on Saturday as they play an apparently strong Mumbai. Himachal are the underdogs without a doubt, but they are unlikely to be disturbed by tags given to them. After all, many years ago, not many would have even given them the chance to come so far as to become an emerging force in Indian domestic cricket.
Everything is then ready for an exciting competition.
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 came in two innings, against relatively modest attacks (Mizoram and Assam) early in the tournament. Normally reticent, he has spoken out about his disappointment at missing the India bus and the work he has done in terms of his suitability to justify selection. After a brief hiatus, he showed signs of form during a blistering 21-ball 32 that set up Mumbai’s semi-final chase against Vidarbha. A big blow in the final for the national selectors won’t be a bad way to get a message across.
One of the most prolific all-rounders in Indian domestic cricket, Rishi Dhawan has gone wicketless in just one of the six games Himachal has played. His 11 wickets come in at an average of 13.72 and an economy of 7.19. He bowled in the early 130’s, but accuracy and control over his variations, especially a powerful cutter, are his USP. All of these elements were a key part of his 3 for 25 that derailed Punjab in the semi-finals. Can he win Himachal to a second title in a short time?
With such a short lead time, it’s unlikely that either team will make too many adjustments to their winning combination.
It is the beginning of winter in the Far East, where the light drops sharply at 4:30 pm. And so much of the game will be played under lights. That means that at some point, dew will definitely play a role and at least affect the team defending a score in the bottom half of the innings. This makes the throw all the more important. Purely from a batting perspective, the surfaces were full of runs. So expect it to be a high scoring match.
Statistics and trivia
Among those who have made at least 300 runs in a single edition of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Prithvi Shaw’s success rate of 183.42 is the second highest in this edition. Rishabh Pant struck at 195.71 in 2017-18.
Himachal Pradesh has won all six completed matches they have played in the tournament so far (two of their matches were abandoned). If they win the final, after Bengal (2010-11), Uttar Pradesh (2015-16), Karnataka (2018-19) and Tamil Nadu (2020-21) they will be only the fifth team to win the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy without to drop a single game.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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