Kolkata: A red-hot Bengal will have a chance to claim their first Ranji Trophy title in 33 years when they face Saurashtra, bolstered by the return of pacer and domestic game heavyweight Jaydev Unadkat, in the summit clash here from Thursday.
Bengal will not just be hungry to win the title, but revenge will also be on their mind. The last time Bengal made the final in 2020, Saurashtra had won the title on the basis of first innings lead at their home turf in Rajkot.
Both the teams are set to cross swords in a Ranji final again, this time at Eden Gardens, a venue where Bengal had won their last Ranji Trophy way back in 1990.
It’s not that Bengal have been under-performing. They have been on an upward curve since the 2019-20 season, making it to the semifinals three times on the trot. They have played two finals in this period. In between, the 2020-21 season was abandoned because of COVID-19 pandemic.
The likes of opening batter Abhimanyu Easwaran, all-rounder Shahbaz Ahmed and pacer Mukesh Kumar, who have been in the national radar for quite some time, are well aware that a title at the biggest stage of the domestic level could be a career-changing feat.
Pacer Akash Deep, with 37 wickets from nine matches, has been in red hot form this season, while youngster Sudip Gharmi has come of age as their second highest run-getter (789 runs).
Bengal’s main strength in the recent past has been its the pace bowling and the troika of Akash Deep, Ishan Porel and Mukesh Kumar would look to exploit the Eden green-top.
But against a Saurashtra team that is bolstered by the return of left-arm pacer Jaydev Unadkat from the national side, the onus would be on the Bengal batters to give the winning edge by taking a first innings lead.
Onus on Bengal batters
By his standards, Bengal’s batting mainstay Abhimanyu is yet to come out on top form this season in crucial matches and he would hope to give his best in the final.
Veteran Anustup Majumdar has been Bengal’s crisis man and the leading scorer for them with 790 runs, while it would be another test of character for the 23-year-old Gharami.
Much credit is also due to their inspirational skipper Manoj Tiwary who returned to lead the side after three years to take Bengal to the final with his senior teammate Laxmi Ratan Shukla, now the Bengal head coach.
Tiwary, who is also the state sports minister, is 167 runs shy of a personal milestone of 10,000 runs in first-class cricket. He may not have been prolific with the bat (398 runs) but his astute captaincy and maturity has worked well for the side.
“I’m not thinking about milestones. Speaking from experience, whenever you have a milestone in mind the focus shifts,” Tiwary said at the media interaction.
“The focus is on the present situation. My aim is to give a match winning contribution, be it 40 or 50, to ensure a first innings lead and take it forward. We are just thinking of it as just another match — not seeing it as the final.”
Tiwary further said his team is not eyeing for ‘revenge’.
“Saurashtra beating us is past. We are focused on the present situation and at the moment it looks good for Bengal cricket,” he said.
“We don’t want to take this word. To achieve this, obviously you have to beat them in the skill-set, in tactics and strategy. We can say we have taken revenge after defeating them.”
Asked whether Bengal are wary of Saurashtra’s left-arm pacers, Tiwary said: “We are carrying two left-arm pacers and called some club cricketers who bowl left-handed. All bases are covered preparation-wise.”
Left-arm pacers, Saurashtra’s X-Factors
For the visitors, the two left-arm pacers in domestic veteran Unadkat and Chetan Sakariya would be their X-Factors.
Unadkat, who led Saurashtra to the Ranji title in 2020 and the Vijay Hazare triumph this season, was released from the national team and he would look to swing it in his team’s favour.
Unadkat made it clear that Bengal can’t just walk away with their pace bowling strength on the Eden green-top pitch.
“One thing I will make sure is that, it’s a challenge for batters for both the sides. It won’t just be a challenge for Saurashtra batters,” Unadkat warned.
“If it’s a challenge for our batters, then it would be a challenge for their batters as well.”
He said the summit clash would be an even contest where both the teams’ bowlers would be on top at times.
“But the batters would also have a considerable role to play, given that there is bounce on the wicket and the outfield is fast.
“If it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be difficult for both sides. If it’s not, not for both sides,” he signed off.
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