"Garmi badh gayee hai kya (Has it gotten hotter)", Bipul Sharma, the Himachal Pradesh captain, asked the ground staff after having a look at the pitch at the Gymkhana ground in Hyderabad following a light warm-up session on Thursday (February 5).
The question seemed to puzzle the curator, who was sweating buckets after spending close to two hours in the morning to add the finishing touches to the 22-yard strip. The morning sun was baking down, and although not harsh by Hyderabad standards, it was still hotter than what Himachal have weathered back home, where snowfall, sheets of icy cold wind and rain have been the norm.
Bipul's concern was understandable, given that his team is on the doorstep of the knockouts going into their final Group C fixture of the 2014-15 Ranji Trophy season against Hyderabad starting on Friday.
The team, noticeably light without the hand warmers, sweaters and woolen caps, warmed up with a game of kho-kho and football. It seemed from far that the exercise was just to get used to the heat of the fading Hyderabad winter. There was plenty of cheer and competitive spirit with which the games were played - healthy signs for a side that lies second in the points table.
Himachal currently have 27 points in the bag and a first-innings lead over Hyderabad would be enough to seal their quarterfinal berth. Their consistency through the course of the season has meant they stand a chance even if they were to squander a lead, or even the match. But that would mean they leave their fate to Andhra, who need to win with a bonus point for Himachal Pradesh's benefit.
But the players didn't seem too perturbed. There was banter and laughter as well as some serious discussions. After the fun and games, Paras Dogra, the vice-captain who has been the centre of gravity for the batting department, spoke to every member of the squad, and the respect he commands was noticeable.
After the one on ones, the side dived into a short and sharp catching drill followed by a one-hour net session, with Rishi Dhawan, their talismanic allrounder, and Ankush Bains, the wicketkeeper, enjoying longer stints than usual. In a way, it was surprising - Dhawan is currently the highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 39 scalps, while Bains is the second highest run-getter (499 runs in eight innings at an average of 71.82) for Himachal.
At the other end of the confidence spectrum are Hyderabad, whose chances of progressing to the knockouts have come to a grinding halt. While that was somewhat expected given the thin bowling resources, a change of captaincy wasn't on the cards.
The selectors have opted for a change at the top with G Hanuma Vihari taking over from D Ravi Teja, who has also been left out of the playing XI along with Syed Ahmed Quadri, who was the vice-captain until last week. Abdul Azeem, the Hyderabad coach, admitted the side's morale was low, but the match presented his young side an opportunity to build for the future.
Yet, the striking aspect about Hyderabad's net session wasn't about those who have been chosen to play the game, but one who is fighting his way back after a major setback. Pragyan Ojha, whose action was deemed illegal and who was subsequently banned from bowling in December 2014, bowled his heart out for close to two hours. Occasionally, he would enquire about his deliveries, while at other times, he would quietly bowl on. But it was heartening to see that he didn't seem lost despite being out.
Hyderabad's quest to challenge their opponents could be fuelled by a surface Azeem termed "result-oriented". The venue change at the eleventh hour comes as a much-needed relief as Rajiv Gandhi Stadium in Uppal that recently hosted a private Twenty20 tournament hasn't really been conducive for riveting cricket this season with Hyderabad squeezing out two drab draws and an innings defeat to Assam, which Azeem put down to bad batting.
That the Hyderabad bowlers have only two five-wicket hauls to show for their efforts this season, even as the batsmen have done comparatively better, explains part of their problems. Whether they rise to the occasion and accept the 'gift' the curator has served up will form the crux of the contest.
Hyderabad: G Hanuma Vihari (capt), Akshath Reddy, Tanmay Agarwal, Ashish Reddy, B Sandeep, Akash Bhandari, Habeeb Ahmed (wk), CV Milind, Anwar Ahmed Khan, Himalay Agarwal, Danny Derek Prince, AI Harsha, J Anshul, M Ravi Kiran, D Ravi Teja.
Himachal Pradesh: Bipul Sharma (capt), Rishi Dhawan, Nikhil Gangta, Ankush Bains (wk), Akash Vashisht, Raghav Dhawan, Rashmi Ranjan Parida, Paras Dogra, Kanwar Abhinay, Karanveer Singh, Amit Kumar, Pankaj Jaiswal, Ankush Bedi, Ankit Kalsi, Abhimanyu Rana.
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