Ranji Trophy 2015-16: MP take on Shukla-less Bengal

Madhya Pradesh, with its capacity to spring surprises with an impactful bunch of players, will take on a resurgent Bengal, which has been lifted in its endeavours this season by spinner Pragyan Ojha in the quarterfinal at Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai. The absence of Laxmi Ratan Shukla, who retired recently, will be missed by the Manoj Tiwary-led team, however.

All-rounder Jalaj Saxena has had handy returns with the bat and ball this season.   -  K. Pichumani

Laxmi Ratan Shukla, who played 137 first-class matches for Bengal, retired from official cricket in December due to lack of motivation.   -  R. V. Moorthy

With its capacity to surprise bigger teams, Madhya Pradesh will be a formidable force when it takes on Bengal in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinal at the Brabourne Stadium on Wednesday. The team, led by middle-order batsman Devendra Bundela, possess a potent quality, evidenced in the fact that it has qualified for the knockout stages ahead of Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Baroda in the tournament.

All-rounders Jalaj Saxena and Harpreet Singh, and new ball bowler Ishwar Pandey are capable of impactful displays. Naman Ojha, wicketkeeper-batsman and team vice-captain, feels MP is a close-knit unit with the seniors showing the way. “Seniors are performing, it motivates the others. The juniors are focussed, team performs when the experienced players do their roles expected from them.”

Saxena’s value as an allrounder is evident in his statistics for the Ranji season (530 runs and 46 wickets). He is capable of turning a course of a contest with bat or ball. Harpreet middles the ball well and on his day, can come up with a big knock.

'Performances will be noticed'

The upcoming fixture is the critical time to display the skills players are known for, Ojha said. “A five-day knockout game is the right stage to show quality. Performances will be noticed. My batting has been up and down in the league, I want to spend time at the crease. As a team, we raised the performance bar for (Madhya Pradesh), the minimum will be to reach the knockouts.”

Coached by former Mumbai Ranji bowler Sairaj Bahutule, Bengal, too, is a formidable unit, despite the recent retirement of all-rounder Laxmi Ratan Shukla. India middle-order batsman Manoj Tiwary is captain; the team is also boosted by effective bowlers in pacer Ashok Dinda (31 wickets) and left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha.

“I don’t believe in imposing myself on the players. Coaching is about knowing the strengths of each individual and allowing them the freedom to express themselves on the field. At this level, players know what to do. My role is to make them play to their potential,” Bahutule said.

Bengal qualified from Group A, featuring defending champion Karnataka, strong Delhi and former Ranji finalist Maharashtra. But ahead of the quarterfinal against Madhya Pradesh, the absence of the experienced, veteran Laxmi Shukla will hurt, Bahutule conceded. “The players realised the need to raise their level against these teams. The younger lot needs to perform. It is not easy to find a replacement of Laxmi Ratan Shukla’s calibre, each one has to do their bit.”