As much as multi-day cricket is about grit, determination, patience and skill, sometimes you need a little something extra to go all the way. Ask Manoj Tiwary, who is in his 19th year of trying to help Bengal win a Ranji Trophy title. Appointed captain at 37 for the 2022-23 season, Tiwary is leading the way, both on and off the field, as Bengal finds itself in its fourth Ranji Trophy final of this century and second in the last three seasons.
Of course, Bengal had to exorcise the ghosts of the past and avenge last year’s semifinal loss to Madhya Pradesh to confirm its presence in the title clash. But this time, it had the enduring presence of the Bengal flag at the dugout, pictures of the Ranji Trophy plastered on the walls of the dressing room and chants of Joi Bangla (Victory to Bengal) echoing from the team huddle across the length and breadth of the Holkar Cricket Stadium in Indore, away from home, to help push players ‘that extra bit’.
“We have introduced Ranji Trophy pictures in the dressing room. I realised the slogan Joi Bangla is making a deep impact on our emotions. We, Bengali people, are emotional. It’s a slogan which is bringing everybody together and making them realise they are representing Bengal. We are lucky and fortunate enough to represent Bengal. Our dream is to win the Ranji Trophy. When the posters are there in front of your eyes and you’re looking constantly at the trophy, then you realise you’re playing this game to win the Ranji Trophy. This inspires a winning mentality,” Tiwary told Sportstar after Bengal thrashed Madhya Pradesh by 306 runs in the semifinal.
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“The flag is outside the dressing room. Whenever we are coming out, we just have a look at the flag and we get motivation. We don’t need extra motivation but sometimes when you are low and down and a session doesn’t go your way, then you point to the flag and the players get charged up. As human beings, you might get drained out physically and mentally, and there has to be something which will push you that extra bit,” he added.
Majumdar the crisis man
Bengal, however, didn’t need to dig too deep in the knockouts after topping Group A in the league stage. The trio of Akash Deep, Mukesh Kumar and Ishan Porel – Bengal’s pace-bowling engine room for the past three seasons – dismantled Jharkhand in the quarterfinal by picking 12 wickets between them and leaving their batters just 67 to chase in the fourth innings. In the semifinal, Bengal’s crisis man Anustup Majumdar, battling a left thumb injury, conjured scores of 120 and 80 with able support from emerging No. 3 mainstay Sudip Kumar Gharami (112 and 41) after the openers fell in quick succession in both innings. With Deep tearing through Madhya Pradesh with a five for 52 and handing Bengal a mammoth 268-run first-innings lead, the defending champion was always falling short of a 548-run target on the final day.
If perseverance is inadequate to tide over the vagaries of the game, individual brilliance is far less likely to pass muster. Ask Karnataka skipper Mayank Agarwal, who is on his own quest to restore his team’s pride on the domestic circuit. In the semifinal against Saurashtra, he looked hopelessly alone in his endeavour. Mayank scored 249 of Karnataka’s 407 in the first innings, followed it up with a 55 in the second to emerge as the top run-scorer in the tournament by a distance, with 990 runs in nine innings at an average of 82.50. But his counterpart Arpit Vasavada’s double-century, complemented by domestic giant Sheldon Jackson’s 160, ensured Karnataka could only play catch-up as Saurashtra surged ahead by 120 runs in the race for first-innings honours.
Krishnappa Gowtham (three for 38) and V. Koushik (three for 32) gave Karnataka a whiff of victory by reducing Saurashtra to 42 for five in a 115-run chase, prompting some Bengal players to cut short their celebrations more than 1,000 kilometres away and glue their eyes to the video analyst’s laptop as the drama unfolded. Eventually, cricket didn’t turn out to be that funny a game as Vasavada’s unbeaten 47 guaranteed Bengal would face Saurashtra.
In a result-oriented world – which haunts cricket as much as life – there are seemingly small deeds of enormous significance that are often reduced to footnotes. Not a single scorecard, perhaps, will tell you that Hanuma Vihari batted with a broken left forearm against Madhya Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinal. That the Andhra skipper struck a one-handed cut and reverse shot to the boundary after taking a left-hander’s guard will be lost in the deluge of statistics that pervade cricket circles. But the India player’s defiance kept the soul of domestic cricket flickering and served as a lesson in dedication to youngsters who dream to strut through the corridors of the national team.
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The 26 runs Vihari scored in the match after getting injured also forced Madhya Pradesh to stretch every sinew while chasing a tricky 245 on an Indore pitch that had seen pacers Avesh Khan and Gaurav Yadav bundle Andhra for 93 in the second innings. Madhya Pradesh headed into the semifinal toughened by a fightback after it conceded a 151-run first-innings lead against Andhra, but Bengal was a tougher nut to crack.
Saurashtra survived its own little scare in the quarterfinal against Punjab at home when the latter took a 128-run first-innings lead, riding on a 212-run opening stand between Prabhsimran Singh (126) and Naman Dhir (131). But aid came from unexpected quarters when a 95-run partnership for the last wicket between Parth Bhut (111 n.o.) and Yuvrajsinh Dodiya helped Saurashtra haul itself over 300. Then, hefty contributions from the middle and lower-middle order, which included a fifty from Bhut, set Punjab 252 to get on a track that had started to turn. Bhut then administered the coup de grace with a fifer as Punjab was skittled out for 180, with Saurashtra spinners taking all 10 wickets in the innings.
Its semifinal opponent Karnataka was perhaps lulled into complacency after it thrashed Uttarakhand by an innings and 281 runs in the quarterfinal. Karnataka posted 606, riding on Shreyas Gopal’s career-best unbeaten 161 and four half-centurions. Pacers Vidhwath Kaverappa, Vyshak Vijay Kumar and debutant M. Venkatesh shared 15 wickets between them to ensure Karnataka didn’t bat again.
The battle lines were drawn ahead of the semifinals, with the table-topper from each Elite group making it to the last-four stage. The battle was intense, as all six knockout games ended with an outright result and three of them extended into a fifth day with the contest wide open. The battle for supremacy eventually boiled down to a rematch of the finalists from the 2019-20 season at the Eden Gardens.
Meanwhile, the defending champion Madhya Pradesh was left licking its wounds. Its legendary coach Chandrakant Pandit stared hard into the distance across the afternoon green of the Holkar Stadium, devising how to pick up the pieces while also coping with a time warp as the Irani Cup loomed in about two weeks’ time for the Ranji Trophy champion of nine months ago, at the same venue.
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