Hanuma Vihari and his Andhra team earned one of the most dramatic knockout qualifications the Ranji Trophy has witnessed in recent memory.
In an Elite Group B stacked with the strongest domestic competitors, Andhra made a come-from-behind run to the quarterfinals by pipping the might of Mumbai and Maharashtra.
Heading into the last two rounds, Andhra (13 points) did not have much to target, save a few points perhaps, to maintain its fourth spot. Saurashtra was almost through to the last eight, with Mumbai and Maharashtra jostling for the second place.
Andhra then surprised Saurashtra with a thumping 150-run win away from home in Rajkot. An iota of luck came the side’s way on the third day of that match when Hanuma Vihari sensed an opportunity after securing a 178-run first-innings lead over the home side. With an eye on the Mumbai-Delhi game, he saw a chance to reduce the 10-point deficit with the record Ranji Trophy champion.
“We hadn’t followed the Mumbai-Delhi match. They were 20 for no loss at one point and suddenly 37/5 towards the end of lunch. I hadn’t seen the score immediately, but after seeing that position, I thought we could have a chance if we could enforce the follow-on and get seven points. But we also knew, it was a bit of a risk with just a 178-run lead. I thought it was important to secure six points which were comfortable. We weren’t completely sure, so I asked the match referee about the rule. But then they told me once you’ve informed a decision, you can’t change it,” Vihari told Sportstar.
Thankfully for his side, Vihari’s instinctive call paid off as Andhra vanquished Saurashtra in another day and a half to bag six points.
Last round drama
Heading into the last round, Saurashtra had secured qualification while Maharashtra (25 points) and Mumbai (23) clashed in a virtual knockout for second place. Meanwhile, Andhra (19) had a “0.01 per cent chance” to qualify, as head coach Yere Goud would later describe.
Vihari admitted he had little hope even as Andhra finished its campaign with a comprehensive innings and 95 runs mauling of Assam within three days in Vizianagaram, while five sessions were left in the Mumbai-Maharashtra game.
“4 outright wins in 7 games! We fought hard but, Not meant to be this year. We will come back harder and stronger next season. Proud to lead this bunch who gives their everything on the ground,” Vihari posted on social media at 1:46 pm during Day 3 of the seventh round.
Within the next 90 minutes, it was high-end drama in Mumbai as the home side tied with Maharashtra’s first innings score of 384 after a valiant Tanush Kotian fell as the last man on 93. For only the 10th time in the history of over 5000 games, neither team had managed to take the lead in a Ranji Trophy match. Of course, Vihari had to delete his post.
A draw the next day would have meant Andhra would catapult to the second spot over Maharashtra despite them levelling on points - the BCCI’s new tie-breaker rule meant the number of bonus point wins was the first criterion. Andhra earned its first in the last round, while Maharashtra had none till that stage.
There was delirium among the Andhra team members; most of whom had left for their respective homes after the third day’s play while the captain and a few of his teammates had stayed back in Vizag.
“After the Assam game, I thought we had a good season, winning four matches outright in a tough group. I was happy with the effort, but somewhere you also feel disappointed that despite playing good cricket and not qualify. We were following the scores of Mumbai-Maharashtra. Once the ninth wicket fell, I had a little bit of hope. I could not believe it when they tied, but on the other hand, I was still waiting for the next day,” Vihari says.
“Last day was pretty dramatic. Me, Ricky (Bhui), Prithvi (Raj Yarra) and Lalith (Mohan) were together in Vizag. We couldn’t sit in one place, so we went on a drive. Just driving around for six hours while looking at the score every five minutes. We were supposed to fly the previous evening, but we stayed back after the tie. The other players had left by then (laughs).”
Mumbai and Maharashtra slipped up on the final day, Mumbai fell 58 runs short of an improbable 253-run target in 28 overs and Maharashtra failed to scalp four more wickets.
Andhra squeezed through. Within hours, the team had to regroup and fly to face Madhya Pradesh in Indore after long layovers in Chennai and Delhi
System and schedule
A few murmurs were heard about the points system after the dramatic league-stage ended. Mumbai captain Ajinkya Rahane batted for five-day games. Maharashtra’s Ankeet Bawane lamented the bonus point rule.
“I was not sure about the system until the last day (laughs), because I really didn’t have much hope before that. It keeps changing every year, doesn’t it? It is confusing. We have got to play with the rules that the BCCI have set and should respect them. I am not saying this just because it went our way, but it’s about understanding the rules and planning your season and matches accordingly. Although we won four matches, we weren’t supposed to go through. I guess we should have been complaining,” Vihari says.
The Andhra batter, however, raises another pertinent issue. “Looking at the schedule, that’s one thing I’d complain about is the rest that we are getting between the games. Maybe the BCCI should have a look at it because it’s affecting the players and the combination. Especially for a team like Andhra, our bench strength is not adequate. We are improving. This season has been cramped, and most players would agree with it. We used to have four days break between games. If we can get back to that, it would be good because there’s a lot of travelling involved, unlike the last couple of seasons where we were stationed at a particular place.”
Around the corner
A lacklustre domestic season has followed Vihari after he was recently dropped from India’s Test squad. The 29-year-old said he is not fretting too much over it.
“I would say I’ve been batting well in the league phase. I couldn’t get a big score, got a couple of 80s. It’s been a strange season for me, I’ve got the starts but could not convert them. It has not happened to me before, but hopefully, the big one is around the corner when it matters the most in the quarterfinals or knockouts,” he says.
“The selectors have had a conversation with me. They’ve told me if I keep getting runs, they are still looking at me, and that’s a huge motivation for me to score runs and come back to the side.”