Battles of the Ranji final: Pujara v Umesh and Jaffer v Unadkat

Cheteshwar Pujara plays the pull shot Getty Images

On the eve of the Ranji Trophy 2018-19 final on Saturday, there were two sets of a pair of players engaged in animated conversation when both Vidarbha and Saurashtra were having their nets sessions at the VCA Stadium in Nagpur.

Saurashtra's Cheteshwar Pujara had walked up to Vidarbha's Wasim Jaffer, and both men talked fairly long and earnestly, but with smiles all through. Perhaps about how much each one should levy property tax on the other for spending inordinate amounts of time in the middle.

A little while later, Vidarbha's Umesh Yadav and Saurashtra's Jaydev Unadkat were in a similar tête-à-tête, maybe discussing the rival merits of the joy of moving one away from the batsman after slanting the ball in, versus having him hopping on the back foot, and poking limply.

Whatever the content of the conversation, from Sunday onwards the bowlers will be trying their best to get the opposing batsman out. And how those two contests pan out could be the key moments in each team's innings.

Cheteshwar Pujara v Umesh Yadav

Pujara and Umesh have faced each other just once in the Ranji Trophy before, in February 2016 in a quarter-final. While Saurashtra won that game in Vizianagaram by an innings and 85 runs, Umesh had Pujara caught behind for 47 on the way to a five-wicket haul.

Theirs is the clash that will headline this contest. Pujara is coming on the back of 131* in the fourth innings in the semi-final, in a tough chase against Karnataka who kept coming hard at him throughout. That knock came after he had hit 67* in the previous fourth-innings chase, in the quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh. And those two matches, of course, have followed after a historic, Man-of-the-Series batathon against Australia.

Pujara's might be among the most-prized wicket in world cricket right now, given how bowlers are being driven to despair trying to dislodge him. He played one match for Saurashtra in November before leaving for Australia and later rejoining the team for the knockouts. Umesh hadn't played any match for Vidarbha earlier this season, but he too joined the team upon returning from Australia.

Umesh played only one Test in Australia, but showed absolutely no rust after coming back. He went one better than Pujara, getting the Man-of-the-Match awards in the quarter-final and the semi-final. On a track without much life in it, he took nine wickets against Uttarakhand. When there was juice in the pitch, against Kerala, he blew the team away with 12 wickets in the match.

Rajneesh Gurbani, Umesh's team-mate at Vidarbha, had lit up their title run last season by getting those awards in the quarter-final, semi-final and final. Umesh is on track to replicate that feat.

If Umesh hasn't yet bowled to a batsman of the calibre of Pujara in the knockout stages, Pujara hasn't had to face any bowler as devastating either. One of them has 21 wickets in two games at a bowling average of 9.14. The other has 254 runs at that same stage at a batting average of 127. Individual contests within matches can sometimes be more about hype than effect, but without losing sight of the fact that it's still a team game, there is an underlying 'this-is-it' feeling about whoever triumphs when Umesh's irresistible force meet's Pujara's immovable object.

Wasim Jaffer v Jaydev Unadkat

While Pujara and Umesh are the natural cynosures when Saurashtra bat and Vidarbha bowl, an equally important battle will take place when the teams switch roles.

The paeans to Jaffer being an ageless wonder have been repeated too often, but that's only because he keeps living up to them. He's not only been his team's primary batsman - again - but also scored 1,000 runs this season - again. Sure, teams didn't have as many matches in a season in the early decades of the Ranji Trophy that they do now. And true enough, the best batsmen in the country don't play full seasons of the competition because they are playing for India. But it's still remarkable that Jaffer is the only one to make more than 1,000 runs in a season twice in 85 years that the Ranji Trophy has existed. It began in 1934-35 and neither World War II nor domestic crises have stopped it from being held since then.

In all that time, no one has amassed more runs or centuries than Jaffer, and he's not done yet.

As for Unadkat, he's not only the first Saurashtra seamer to get 200 wickets in Ranji Trophy, he's also eyeing history by become the first Saurashtra captain to lift the trophy. Unadkat's 35 wickets this season at an average of 16.74, the best for Saurashtra among bowlers who have bowled at least five overs. In the semi-final against Karnataka, he showed how versatile he can be, switching from over the wicket to round and back, bringing the ball in and taking it away, and coming out on top against a top order that had Mayank Agarwal, Karun Nair and Manish Pandey. It was merely an extension of what he's been doing for Saurashtra all along. Having played just under 40% of his Ranji Trophy matches at home, where the pitches are famously either flat or turners, Unadkat has still got a bowling average of 23.42.

Unadkat has bowled to Jaffer in seven matches, five times against Mumbai and twice against Vidarbha. He had never dismissed Jaffer until the last time the two met, in this season's league game just before the knockouts.

The second contest of the match might not have the 'main event' status as the first, but it could be just as crucial in deciding the eventual outcome.