Yuvraj Singh’s praise for Shubman Gill didn’t have the hyperbole. The veteran spoke from the heart. “(Shubman) is a very special talent. After a long time I have seen a young guy whose batting I would like to watch. He is very exciting. He is very talented. After the 2019 World Cup, he should make it (to the Indian team). He is someone who can represent India for a long time. (But) it depends (on) how well we look after our youngsters.
“The prime example is Rishabh Pant. When he came last year, everybody said he plays too many shots. He is rash. He doesn’t have the mind… But after one year of being in and out — he had a good IPL — the guy scored two (Test) hundreds overseas. So, you have to look after your talented guys. You have to give them the confidence to excel,” Yuvraj said.
A few paces away, Gill was having a kickabout with his Punjab Ranji team mates at the JU Salt Lake University campus ground. The 19-year-old loves football and likes Neymar. But he has a more serious business ahead. The JU campus ground will host the do-or-die Ranji Trophy match between Bengal and Punjab from Monday. The hosts are placed third in Elite, Group B, with 22 points from seven matches.
Punjab, placed fifth, are on 20 points from seven games. The changed Ranji Trophy format allows top five teams from Elite, Group A and B combined to qualify for the quarterfinals. And it makes the final round of group league fixture between the two teams a must-win contest.
Even an outright win might not get them to the knockouts if the other results don’t go in their favour. But it’s a match where both sides will go all out and no wonder that Gill has become the focal point.
He has already scored 629 runs from four matches, including two hundreds and three fifties, and an average north of 125. But Punjab have only two outright wins to their credit so far, because the batting has collectively failed to fire. The JU campus ground pitch looks dry and it might assist turn as the match progresses.
After returning from the India A’s tour of New Zealand, Gill has scored 268, 148 and 69 not out in the last three Ranji matches, opening the innings. In challenging conditions, the visitors rely heavily on the teenager.
Punjab captain Mandeep Singh, too, was effusive in his praise for the youngster. Not many moons ago, Mandeep himself was on the national selectors’ radar. He featured in three T20 internationals in Zimbabwe in 2016 and scored a fifty.
But the middle-order batsman appeared to have failed to build on his promise. Of late, however, he has been pretty consistent. Six half-centuries in seven Ranji games this term attest a decent contribution. Against Delhi, his 90 in the first innings was a match-winning effort.
Flattering to deceive
In the last match also, another bonus point victory, against Kerala, Mandeep’s 89 in the first innings proved to be the real difference between the two sides.
On paper, Punjab look a better batting unit, with Jiwanjot Singh opening alongside Gill, Anmolpreet Singh at one drop, Yuvraj offering experience in the middle-order and Gurkeerat Singh coming at No. 6. But as Bengal captain Manoj Tiwary pointed out, cricket is played on the 22 yards. He took Punjab’s star-quotient with a pinch of salt.
“Our team, too, have stars. The way we played the last match — a comeback win against Delhi… We are used to being ‘subdued’. There’s a notion I guess. But we have a decent star-cast as well. We have been playing for so many years (at this level). (Ashok) Dinda’s record was flashed on TV. And we have ‘young stars’ also; the way Abhimanyu (Easwaran) batted and pulled if off against Delhi,” Tiwary said. The skipper also spoke about targeting Gill’s “weak area”.
By the way, this match offers a mini-battle between two young players. Gill is being tipped as the next big thing in Indian cricket. But Easwaran also is making steady progress.
After coming back from the ‘A’ tour in New Zealand, the 23-year-old Bengal opener has hammered a 186 against Hyderabad followed by 57 and a superb 183 not out against Andhra and Delhi respectively. But Easwaran is still playing catch-up, when it comes to the likes of Gill or Prithvi Shaw.
During a chat a few days back, Bengal coach Sairaj Bahutule offered a different perspective. “More than that, I think he should be Abhimanyu Easwaran. He doesn’t need to emulate. He has to be what he is; what his strengths are as a player. He can’t be like somebody else. Prithvi is different, everybody is different. He (Easwaran) has a different way of playing.”
In the end, it might come down to the spinners though, on a wearing surface. Punjab has an in-form leggie in Mayank Markande – a six-for against Hyderabad followed by a six-wicket match haul against Kerala. “As long as the bowlers are taking wickets, then Yuvraj Singh can rest,” the 2011 World Cup showstopper said tongue in cheek.
Bengal, on the other hand, are likely to retain the winning combination, with Pradipta Pramanik and Amir Gani as their two frontline spinners. A first-class debut for the 16-year-old IPL ‘crorepati’, Prayas Ray Barman, appears unlikely.
GroupS A & B
A total of 18 teams the two groups combined, and the top five will qualify for the quarterfinals. After seven rounds, defending champions Vidarbha lead the tally with 28 points followed by their Group A rivals Karnataka on 27, and Gujarat and Saurashtra on 26 points each. In Group B, Madhya Pradesh top the table with 24 points followed by Himachal Pradesh and Bengal on 22 points each and then, Kerala and Punjab on 20 points each.
Vidarbha play Saurashtra at Rajkot from Monday. Whoever win, will go through. Three points will do it for Vidarbha but Saurashtra need six to be safe. An outright win for Karnataka against Baroda will secure a quarterfinal berth for Manish Pandey and company. Even three points will be fine for Karnataka. But if they lose outright, then MP, Himachal and Bengal from Group B can surpass them with outright wins. MP play Andhra, while Bengal face Punjab. For Baroda in Group A and Punjab and Kerala in Group B, they will have to get six points, preferably seven, and hope that the other results fall for them. The Himachal versus Kerala match, too, is a win-or-bust contest with Himachal having a two-point lead over their rivals at the moment.
Two teams will qualify from a pool of 10 and Rajasthan are already through, with 44 points from eight matches. Uttar Pradesh are on 38 points followed by Jharkhand on 33 points before the last round of group league fixtures. UP face Assam, requiring a first innings lead to be through. Jharkhand have to beat Jammu and Kashmir and hope Assam upset UP.
Out of the nine new entrants, only the top team will play the quarterfinals. Uttarakhand, Bihar and Puducherry are in contention, with 37, 34 and 32 points respectively. Uttarakhand will have the advantage of playing against Mizoram at home. If Uttarakhand get three points, Bihar can surpass them with a bonus point win against Manipur in Patna. For Puducherry to qualify, they will have to beat Nagaland away and hope that both Uttarakhand and Bihar lose.
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