The Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) is opening three enclosures for fans at Eden Gardens for the Ranji Trophy semifinal between Bengal and Karnataka, starting Saturday. A message has been conveyed to all first and second division clubs, coaching centres and schools affiliated to the CAB to send their players to watch the game.
“We want everyone to come and support our team,” CAB president Avishek Dalmiya said.
On the field, KL Rahul was having an intense net session on Friday. After he was done, the opener, along with Karnataka captain Karun Nair and teammate Manish Pandey, went to have a close look at the pitch. The shade of green on the surface suggests help for the fast bowlers.
On the other side, at the home team nets, Ishan Porel was going full tilt. The Bengal team head coach Arun Lal calls Porel “India material” and banks on fit-again Akash Deep’s pace. This semifinal, at the country’s most storied venue, has a Test match-like feel.
Karnataka, at least on paper, are superior, given their pedigree in domestic cricket and the players they have. The eight-time Ranji Trophy winners have all the bases covered. Rahul’s inclusion has given them an added fillip. Karnataka have domestic cricket thoroughbreds in their ranks.
Bengal, on the other hand, are a work in progress. A process has started under Lal this season, which might take a year or two to come to fruition. Bengal still need a seam-bowling allrounder and an impact batsman at the top to complete their regeneration process. Then again, they are the form team, with three outright wins in the last four group league matches to reach the knockouts.
In the quarterfinal against Odisha, the way they fought back after being reduced to 46/5 on the first day, spoke volumes for the team’s character. The two-time champions have the fighting spirit and a winning momentum to fall back on.
Lal refused to call his team underdogs. “Not at all… I think we are the favourites. We have momentum behind us, played some fabulous cricket. And we have got unquantifiable heroes. Nobody knows about them. We are just getting to hear about them. Tomorrow they could be the finished products. We have three-four players who could go on to play for India within a year or so. We are a team on the zoom. The curve is going up,” he said.
Nair counted on experience. Karnataka are one of the elite teams in domestic cricket and they qualify for the knockouts for fun. “It does give an edge that our players are used to playing in pressure situations. At the end, it’s about who does well on the given day. It’s really important to do well for all five days and in all sessions,” the Karnataka captain observed.
Talking about ‘unquantifiable heroes’, Bengal unleashed a wiry spin-bowling allrounder, answering to the name of Shahbaz Ahmed, this season. With 30 wickets and 427 runs, the 25-year-old has emerged as the team’s X-factor.
“Shahbaz is redefining the Hindi language. Instead of saying janbaaz (daredevil) cricketer, we will say Shahbaz cricketer. I haven’t seen such performances for a long time. Who knows where he will end up but he is one for the future,” Lal didn’t mind a bit of aggrandisement.
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Over to Karnataka and their batting factory – the GRV (Gundappa Viswanath) and RD (Rahul Dravid) school of cricket – rolled out another top talent this season. Devdutt Padikkal is 19 years old, but he has shown maturity beyond his years to make a serious impression. With 583 runs from nine matches, he has attested his class as well.
The Ranji Trophy started in full winter this term, with result pitches being laid out aplenty. Given the points system and that only five teams would qualify to the knockouts from a pool of 18 in Elite, Group A and B, going for outright wins during the league stage became en vogue.
Both Rahul and Pandey were away on India duty. Nair, despite playing some important knocks, has been inconsistent. Padikkal stood up to be counted. Karnataka also thrived on collective batting performance, which offset the fact that they had just one century – scored by R Samarth – during their march to the semifinal.
Now Rahul’s arrival has given Karnataka the problem of plenty. Padikkal has cemented his place as an opener. Samarth, his opening partner, is one with the experience. Samarth also had a 70-plus score in the quarterfinal against Jammu & Kashmir apart from his 500-plus runs in eight matches.
Rahul, of course, is an automatic pick, so it needs to be seen how the visitors alter their playing XI. KV Siddharth is fresh from his match-winning 76 followed by 98 in the quarterfinal and doesn’t deserve to be dropped.
Karnataka had a couple of semifinal heartbreaks at Eden. In 2006-07, a Manoj Tiwary special – 151 not out – took the game away from them, as Bengal chased down 307 in the fourth innings. More recently in 2017-18, they lost to Vidarbha by five runs in a humdinger despite Nair’s brilliance.
Tiwary is still the mainstay of Bengal batting, ready to hurt the opponents. But the Bengal top-order, especially captain Abhimanyu Easwaran, must step up. Against a team of Karnataka’s calibre, the hosts will have little margin for error, as the tourists will be keen to break their Eden jinx.
Live on Star Sports Select 1/3, 9.20 am
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