Defending champion and emerging heavyweight Madhya Pradesh’s exuberance will meet Bengal’s dogged desperation to end a 33-year-long title drought when the two teams clash in the Ranji Trophy semifinal at the Holkar Stadium here from Wednesday.
Bengal stumbled at the same hurdle against the same opposition last season and will hope to make amends in what is its third-consecutive semifinal appearance. The host, meanwhile, would have had to recover from a roller-coaster quarterfinal against Andhra at the same venue, where it had to draw on all its reserves of fortitude to script a five-wicket win after conceding a 151-run first-innings lead.
The visitor, which drubbed Jharkhand by nine wickets in the quarterfinal, enjoyed a more facile entry into the last-four stage but will have to be wary of being caught off guard against an opposition that can prey on a single session of weakness.
A case in point is pace spearhead Avesh Khan, Madhya Pradesh’s leading wicket-taker this season with 36 scalps at 17.08, who picked four for 24 and turned the match on its head as Andhra collapsed for 93 in the second innings. The India international has had able support from fellow pacers Gaurav Yadav (22 wickets at 22.22) and Anubhav Agarwal and spinners Kumar Kartikeya (27 wickets; average 20.14) and Saransh Jain (28 wickets; average 20.17).
This is where Bengal’s experience will hold it in good stead. At 37 and 38, respectively, captain Manoj Tiwary and Anustup Majumdar (590 runs; average 59) have been among the runs while former skipper Abhimanyu Easwaran’s 738 runs at an average of 92.25 have been the highlight. Young Sudip Kumar Gharami has delivered on his promise by averaging 53 for his 636 runs and Bengal’s batting, save for a consistent opening partner for Easwaran, looks solid.
There are even fewer chinks in the bowling armour as the pace trio of Akash Deep, Ishan Porel and Mukesh Kumar have ensured Bengal doesn’t concede in excess of 300 more than once in this edition of the Ranji Trophy. Moreover, with Shahbaz Ahmed and Pradipta Pramanik shouldering spin duties, the Madhya Pradesh batters will have their task cut out.
Barring Rajat Patidar, no batter has averaged 50 or above this season for the defending champion and captain Aditya Shrivastava’s horror form has been a concern. Shubham Sharma has offered stability at No.3 but openers Himanshu Mantri and Yash Dubey have lacked consistency of late.
With conditions at the Holkar Stadium favouring both spinners and seamers and low-scoring games being the order of the day for the large part of the tournament, graft with the bat, particularly in the second innings, could be pivotal.
Both Madhya Pradesh and Bengal had a slump in form and endured shock defeats towards the end of the group stage before getting their act together in the quarterfinals. However, a solitary faux pas, at a venue where the first-innings lead guarantees little advantage, could be fatal for their title aspirations.
The teams (from):
Bengal: Manoj Tiwary (captain), Abhimanyu Eswaran, Anustup Majumdar, Sudip Gharami, Suvankar Bal, Shahbaz Ahmed, Abishek Porel (wk), Ishan Porel, Mukesh Kumar, Akash Deep, Kazi Junaid Saifi, Pradipta Pramanik, Geet Puri, Pritam Chakraborty, Sumanta Gupta, Ankit Mishra, Akash Ghatak and Durgesh Dubey, Karan Lal.
Madhya Pradesh: Aditya Shrivastava (c), Rajat Patidar, Yash Dubey, Himanshu Mantri, Harsh Gawli, Shubham Sharma, Akshat Raghuwanshi, Aman Solanki, Kumar Kartikeya, Saransh Jain, Avesh Khan, Ankit Kushwaha, Gaurav Yadav, Anubhav Agarwal, Mihir Hirwani.
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