Mumbai, Jan 7: Group toppers Maharashtra will play defending champions Mumbai, who barely made it to the knock-out stage, in the five-day quater-final of the Ranji Trophy that promises to be a keen fight at the Wankhede Stadium, starting here tomorrow.
While Maharashtra advanced to the elimination phase by finishing on top of Group C, 40-time champions Mumbai staged a grand comeback from the brink in Group A after conceding a 99-run first innings lead to Gujarat in their final league game before winning outright to qualify for the quarter-final.
All these facts would be confined to the dustbin when the two arch-rivals meet in what is considered to be the Maharashtra state version of the well-known 'War of Roses' between Lancashire and Yorkshire in English county cricket.
Though the visitors from across the Sahyadri ranges topped their group that consisted of the championship's weakest teams, they would find Mumbai - bolstered by the return of veteran pacer Zaheer Khan and all-rounder Abhishek Nayar - a tough nut to crack in the latter's backyard.
Zaheer, who will lead the hosts, is available for this game after missing a few earlier when he was with the Indian team in South Africa and his mere presence would lift the Mumbai bowling attack on a track that generally has bounce and assists pacers for the first couple of days.
Maharashtra's leading batsmen - opener Harshad Khadiwale, Kedar Jadhav, Ankit Bawne, captain and wicket keeper Rohit Motwane and India's under-19 Asia cup-winning skipper Vijay Zol - would have their hands full against the home side attack that has been lifted by the selection of experienced left-arm spinner Iqbal Abdulla.
It was Abdulla's 11-wicket (6 for 42 and 5 for 44) haul that dashed Gujarat's hopes at Valsad. He will have support from Mumbai's top wicket taker of the season, Vishal Dabholkar (38 wickets), who also bowls slow left-arm orthodox stuff.
The welcome news for Maharashtra is that Zol, who cracked a hundred earlier in the season and a match-winning hundred against Pakistan in the Asia Cup final at Sharjah last week, has recovered from his groin niggle and is fit to play.
Zol and other top batsmen of trhe visiting team will have to negotiate well Zaheer, his pace partners Shardul Thakur (21 wickets), Javed Khan (22) and the two left handed slow bowlers to give their side a chance.
Mumbai's batting has not looked as formidable this season with the exception of the seasoned Wasim Jaffer and wicket-keeper Aditya Tare.
The absence of Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, who are now part of India's ODI and Test teams, has hit the batting strength hard.
Nayar, who has the knack of getting breakthroughs with his slow medium bowling, has not fired at all this season with the bat and also got injured which forced him to miss the team's last few important games.
Suryakumar Yadav has played poor shots and got out which had put extra pressure on the other batsmen.
The absence of the steady Hiken Shah, who has split the webbing on his hand, and Siddesh Lad has weakened Mumbai's batting which the Maharashtra bowlers would look to exploit.
The visitors have a decent pace attack spearheaded by Shrikant Munde and are dependent also on the left-arm spin of Akshay Darekar, who will enjoy the bounce offered by the track.
"You cannot underestimate any team that makes it to the quarterfinal. Knowing their history in first class cricket, you have to be at your best," said Maharashtra coach Surendra Bhave when asked about Mumbai.
"I am confident I have got a young side that can perform anywhere in India on any track," said the coach confidently.
Maharashtra: Rohit Motwani (captain and wicketkeeper), Harshad Khadiwale, Chirag Khurana, Kedar Jadhav, Sangram Atitkar, Ankit Bawne, Anupam Sanklecha, Akshay Darekar, Pushkaraj Chavan, Samad Fallah, Shrikant Mundhe, Domnic Joseph Muthuswamy, Vijay Zol, Jay Pande, Shamsuzama Kazi.
Mumbai: Zaheer Khan (captain), Wasim Jaffer, Abhishek Nayar, Aditya Tare (wk), Kaustubh Pawar, Suryakumar Yadav, Vishal Dabholkar, Javed Khan, Shardul Thakur, Iqbal Abdulla, Sagar Kerkar, Vinit Indulkar, Nikhil Patil (Jr), Sarvesh Damle, Saurabh Netravalkar.
Match starts at 9.30 AM IST (Live on Star Sports)