After all the cheering for the return of Ranji Trophy in its full avatar, the coverage given to it on television was underwhelming. With just 21 out of 133 group matches telecast, it seemed that the tournament was being treated as an insignificant sideshow to international cricket.
The denouement to the race for a spot in the knockouts had to be an exciting one to draw the attention back on India’s premier first-class tournament during its first complete season since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Everything fell into place on the final evening of the group stage – the fourth day of the seventh round of matches. Only the heavyweights could have set us up for such a surprise. As Mumbai and Maharashtra clashed from Elite Group B with a knockout spot at stake, few would have seen a third team in Andhra pip them both to join group topper Saurashtra in the knockouts.
Heading into the final round, Andhra (19 points) had just beaten Saurashtra and needed an innings victory (for a bonus point) to barely stay alive. Andhra’s only hope of qualification? An unfinished first-innings draw between Mumbai and Maharashtra where both teams would pocket only one point each – unlikely. Was there another way? Yes, if only Mumbai and Maharashtra play out a first-innings tie, the game ending in a draw.
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Hanuma Vihari’s Andhra had given it all; it beat Assam by an innings and 95 runs within three days to jump to 26 points. Vihari and his boys packed their bags and headed their separate ways home after a “hard-fought” season seemed to have come to an end with four wins, including a bonus point at the very end. But the tables turned all so dramatically. In a trice, Vihari’s ‘season ending’ social media posts vanished as Mumbai and Maharashtra tied on the first innings at the Brabourne Stadium!
The odds were in favour of Andhra heading into the final day. Mumbai and Maharashtra eliminated their chances of progressing to the knockouts by playing out a draw after just the 10th first-innings tie in over 5,000 matches in the tournament’s history. Maharashtra huffed and puffed on day four to set an improbable 253-run target for Mumbai in 28 overs. Ajinkya Rahane’s men went all out but fell 58 runs short when time was called at 5:10pm. The quarterfinals were sealed. Andhra had squeezed through, its solitary bonus point win making the difference as Maharashtra had one point less.
The tournament now had it all – ecstasy, agony, miracles, and great solo efforts. We once again saw how special the tournament is.
Ranji Trophy matters to cricketers. To the unstoppable Sarfaraz Khan, who continues to pile on the runs for Mumbai. To Odisha’s fast-bowling giant Basant Mohanty, who began with Manoj Tiwary’s wicket in 2007 and 401 scalps later bid adieu to the game by claiming the same name again in Kolkata. To Jalaj Saxena, a peerless all-rounder, who notched up 50 wickets in the season yet again without coming close to the India cap. To Prithvi Shaw, the trope of new-age batting, who slammed a record-breaking 379 to make everyone sit up and take notice. And to so many other cricketers.
‘Elite’ battle, relegations and promotions
Elite Group A: With Abhimanyu Easwaran away on India A tours, veteran Manoj Tiwary took charge of Bengal, which topped the group with four wins and 32 points. Easwaran’s thick vein of form continued upon return to the team. He also made his ‘home’ debut at the Abhimanyu Cricket Academy special, scoring 165 and an unbeaten 82 against Uttarakhand. The academy, in Dehradun, was built in his name by his father.
Beginning its journey as a Plate team in 2018-19, Uttarakhand, too, maintained its impressive run. It notched up three wins, pipping the likes of Himachal Pradesh and Baroda to qualify for its third quarterfinal in four seasons.
Elite Group B: While Saurashtra, Andhra, Maharashtra and Mumbai offered drama, the teams in the bottom half of the points table softened the competition in the stiffest group. Heavyweights Tamil Nadu and Delhi were wobbly in the initial rounds before salvaging pride and gaining points towards the business end. TN will be buoyed by the emergence of the exuberant batter-cum-leader Pradosh Ranjan Paul and the return of Vijay Shankar, who scored three centuries and two half-centuries in nine innings.
Delhi had relatively few moments to cherish - Dhruv Shorey’s scintillating form with the bat, Hrithik Shokeen’s impact with bat and ball, and good bowling efforts by Harshit Rana and Divij Mehra.
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Elite Group C: It was all to easy for Karnataka. The eight-time champion remained undefeated, displaying glimpses of its prowess in the longest format, under the captaincy of Mayank Agarwal. The quality of its pace trio of V. Vyshak, Vidwath Kaverappa and Koushik V. meant that the truckload of top-order runs had been braced.
It was a three-way tie for the second spot. Kerala was left hurting after a dismal end to its campaign. With rivals Jharkhand and Rajasthan faltering in the final round, Kerala needed only a win over bottom-ranked Puducherry. However, deplorable tactics and a tame draw ended Kerala’s run in the competition, and propelled Jharkhand through. Jharkhand had two extra points.
Elite Group D: Madhya Pradesh enjoyed a good run as it dismantled its opponents with ease. However, it ran into Punjab in the penultimate stage. Fresh from a jaw-dropped 210-run chase in 24.5 overs against Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab inflicted an innings defeat on the defending champion, its batters brimming with talent and firing along with a terrific pace battery. Both teams were miles ahead of the competition in the group, sealing their spots even before the final round of matches.
Plate Group: There is a lot to play for when you have at stake a spot in the Elite Group next season. Bihar and Manipur cashed in as they vaulted to the final despite mediocre performances in the group stage.
Laggards: A horrendous campaign with a solitary point – thanks to bad light – dumped Hyderabad in the Plate Group alongside Nagaland, which broke into the Elite group this season. Hyderabad, it seems, needs more than just on-field reforms to set the course for a return to the Elite level.
|Best performers (batters)||Best performers (bowlers)|
|Dhruv Shorey (859 runs, 12 innings)||Jalaj Saxena (50 wickets, 13 innings)|
|Sachin Baby (830 runs, 13 innings)||Shams Mulani (46 wickets, 14 innings)|
|Prashant Chopra (783 runs, 11 innings)||Baltej Singh (40 wickets, 13 innings)|