Ranji Trophy: Experience meets exuberance in Bengal-Karnataka clash
Bengal’s pace attack will be up against a batting line-up that should include KL Rahul, Karun Nair, Manish Pandey, teenager Devdutt Padikkal who has half-centuries in each of Karnataka’s first six games and Ravikumar Samarth.
Their array of international batsmen, domestic circuit worthies and the experience of a hattrick of Ranji Trophy semi-finals should have made Karnataka odds-on favourites against Bengal. If it is not it is because en route the semi-final Bengal have shown the stomach for a fight, the exuberance of their young players compensating for lack of experience.
One of them is left-arm spinner Shahbaz Ahmed. Eleven first-class games old, he took 11 wickets against Punjab, six against Hyderabad, five against Kerala. Equally importantly, the 25-year-old scored 82 and 64 in the quarter-final against Odisha; 46 against Delhi; an unbeaten 61 against Rajasthan and 49 against Hyderabad --- runs that salvaged a ruinous top-order display.
“Instead of saying ‘Jaanbaaz’ (brave) cricketer, we will say ‘Shahbaz’ cricketer now,” said Bengal coach Arun Lal here on Friday one day before this penultimate round match at Eden Gardens.
Likely to take the place of Nilkantha Das after missing the quarter-final due to injury, medium-pacer Akash Deep, 23, is another. He took 25 wickets in his debut season and has been a key component in a pace attack that bagged 74 of the 128 wickets Bengal got in nine games. Back from India A duty, Ishan Porel,21, is a third. And Mukesh Kumar, likely to be the third pacer, is 26.
“Our strength is fast bowling and we will stick to that,” said Bengal skipper Abhimanyu Easwaran, 24. “We have got skills to get batsmen out playing normal cricket. It will not be our main focus,” said Lal when asked if Karnataka could face some chin music.
Bengal’s pace attack will be up against a batting line-up that should include KL Rahul, Karun Nair --- he scored 153 in a semi-final here against Vidarbha in 2017-18 --- Manish Pandey, teenager Devdutt Padikkal who has half-centuries in each of Karnataka’s first six games and Ravikumar Samarth.
Given the pace bowling arsenal at their disposal, Karnataka too should get into the swing of things. Their pacers have taken 91 of the 142 wickets this term. That number should swell because Karnataka have got the experienced Abhimanyu Mithun (27 wickets in 2019-20), left-arm seamer Prateek Jain, Ronit More and Prasidh Krishna in the squad here.
“The wicket has something for fast bowlers but you can bat well too. I am confident that however the wicket is, our fast bowlers will always do well,” said Karnataka skipper Nair.
That Padikkal and Bengal’s Manoj Tiwary are the only ones in the list of top 50 run getters this season is proof of extended batting blues for both teams. In some games, off-spinner Krishnappa Gowtham has done with the bat what Ahmed did for Bengal. Gowtham has also taken 29 wickets including 7/54 in the quarter-final against Jammu and Kashmir.
“The fact is we are here. I am okay that someone is doing what it takes,” said Lal. “Those are the signs of a champion team, you find ways to come out of situations, you find people who step up,” said Nair.
Fitting Rahul into the batting order is a happy headache, said Nair. “For me to it is good that he is here. You can go to him, talk strategy.”
Beginning Saturday, Karnataka will aim to take the next step, something they haven’t since winning the title in 2014-15. When Bengal last featured in a Ranji Trophy final, in 2006-07, Sourav Ganguly hadn’t swapped the bat for the boardroom.
Yet, after giving Karnataka their due for coming this far without their A game, Lal said Bengal would start favourites. “We have momentum behind us… we have heroes people are just getting to know about. We are a team on the zoom,” he said.