A misty ambience welcomed the teams at the PCA Stadium as Karnataka and Punjab prepared for the Ranji Trophy semifinal scheduled to begin from Saturday.

Wrapped in woollens and praying for the cold to relent, the players afforded a moment of smile as the sun peeped through the clouds, only to make a fleeting appearance. It was murky again — a precursor to what one can expect once the first ball is bowled in this encounter which is expected to be a close contest, as observed by the two camps.

Karnataka beat Punjab with a bonus point to boast when the teams met in the league stage earlier. This obviously is a different platform, a far more challenging proposition, given the fact, as stressed by Karnataka captain Vinay Kumar, that there shall be no comebacks. “Can’t afford to make mistakes,” observed Vinay. Punjab skipper Harbhajan Singh offered a similar opinion as he analysed the trial ahead.

Punjab, with five outright victories, the last three in-a-row, will lose the services of speedster V.R.V. Singh, down with flu. The home team would not risk playing him. “He has high fever,” coach Bhupinder Singh informed. For Karnataka, there are no worries on any front. “We are a fit, compact and confident team,” declared Vinay.

Fast bowlers will stand to gain from the conditions, the pitch and the weather. Mohai has a tradition to help the swing and seam men. “The ball swings a lot here and no batsman can get things for granted,” Harbhajan confirmed the likely trend the match will adopt. Bat well and bowl well. Easier said than done since the venue is best loved by bowlers but a quality knock can give the team a huge advantage.

Different batsman

It will be a test for the batsmen, especially Robin Uthappa, who has reinvented himself under the guidance of personal coach Pravin Amre, and Yuvraj Singh, eternally involved in comebacks. A hundred in the last match saw Uthappa strike a bright note in his radically fresh approach to batting, a change in stance and shot selection, assuming greater responsibility and putting a bigger price on his wicket. “I am a different batsman. I play the ball on merit now,” said Uthappa.

Karnataka, with six consecutive outright wins in its eventful journey, will also know the significance of snaring Yuvraj early. On his home turf, he is a different customer. A batsman who can raise his game when challenged, Yuvraj is keen to make a statement. Now is the occasion.

The same applies to Mandeep Singh, Manan Vohra and Jiwanjot Singh. This talented trio, with support from Gurkeerat Singh and Taruwar Kohli, can give the Karnataka bowlers a tough time.

The emergence of Karun Nair as a batsman of immense tenacity augurs well for Karnataka, endowed richly with strokeplayers, some compulsive, some judicious. Nair brings solidity and serenity to the force that is marked by K.L. Rahul, Manish Pandey, C.M. Gautam and Mayank Agarwal, who all have the reputation to become the difference between the teams.

Young leg-spinner Shreyas Gopal shall be under scrutiny. There are not many of his ilk attracting the attention of the selectors. Vinay may be tempted to include Ganesh Satish in the eleven, just as Punjab could place faith in Jaskaran Singh, who also revels in breaking partnerships.

New game, fresh game; both teams claim to have played good cricket.

The teams (from):

Punjab: Manan Vohra, Jiwanjot Singh, Mandeep Singh, Taruwar Kohli, Gurkeerat Mann, Yuvraj Singh, Rajwinder Singh, Uday Kaul (wk), Siddharth Kaul, Harbhajan Singh (capt), Manpreet Gony, Sandeep Sharma, VRV Singh, Sunny Sohal, Jaskaran Singh, Gitansh Khera

Karnataka: Mayank Agarwal, KL Rahul, Robin Uthappa, Karun Nair, Manish Pandey, CM Gautam (wk), Shreyas Gopal, Abrar Kazi, R Vinay Kumar (capt), S Aravind, Abhimanyu Mithun, Ronit More, Ganesh Satish, Amit Verma, KP Appanna.

Umpires: Sudhir Asnani and Subrata Das; Match Referee: Sanjay Patil.

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