Ranji Trophy final: Saurashtra favourite as Bengal looks to end 30-year wait

In its second consecutive final, Saurashtra is stronger with the inclusion of Cheteshwar Pujara; Bengal will have Wriddhiman Saha donning the gloves.

Wriddhiman Saha and Cheteshwar Pujara ahead of the Ranji Trophy final in Rajkot.   -  Vijay Soneji

It’s 4.45 pm as the flight lands in Rajkot after a long layover in Mumbai. The temperature is 30 degrees and being a Sunday not many people are out on the streets, with most shops and restaurants shut. But it will not be the same from Monday.

The Ranji Trophy 2019-20 final, between Saurashtra and Bengal, at the Saurashtra Cricket Association stadium is a magnum opus for all the stakeholders. And that's the beauty of the tournament. In and around India, it keeps everyone interested.

It is a big final and the contenders aren't from the main centres of excellence - Mumbai, Karnataka or Delhi.

Ranji Trophy final: Bengal not wary of Cheteshwar Pujara

Bengal opener Koushik Ghosh is upset to be missing out on the crucial fixture due to an injury. Abhimanyu Easwaran felt relieved that the early finish against Karnataka offered his side an extra day to rest. Anustup Majumdar, doing the hard yard since 2004, knows his runs wouldn’t hold any value if they don’t win the final.

The trophy is not a frequent visitor to Bengal and the wait keeps getting longer every season. The first title came in 1938-39 in British India. The second one in 1989-90; after fifty years. And now, the third chance, in 13 years.

At least, the current Bengal team has ex-players – Utpal Chatterjee, Arun Lal and Ranadeb Bose – as coaches. They have a certain Sourav Ganguly to look up to who was part of the winning side in 1990. He had replaced his elder brother, Snehasish who is the current secretary of the Cricket Association of Bengal.

Saurashtra doesn’t have any such figures.

The Pujaras and the Jadejas are recent stories. Earlier, it had to cut its teeth in the the Plate group to slowly find its feet among the Elite teams in the competition. In the early 2000, the established cricketers from Bombay would eagerly wait for a game against Saurashtra to repair their technical flaws and strike some form.

Ranji Trophy 2019-20: Saurashtra's road to the final

All that changed once Debu Mitra took over as coach and made players out of the boys.

Post Mitra, former Saurashtra batsman Sitanshu Kotak took over and made them psychologically stronger.

On paper, Saurashtra is slightly ahead; mainly due to its all-round depth and exceptional new-ball spells led by captain and left-arm pacer Jaydev Unadkat. And it’s a home game for the boys from Kathiawar.

Concern areas

The two teams also have a common problem; the form of the top-order and in return, the good middle and lower-order who can cause turnarounds.

Match after match, it has been either Sheldon Jackson, Prerak Mankad or Chirag Jani bailing Saurashtra out. Anustup Majumdar and Shahbaz Ahmed did the same job for Bengal.

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But the final could belong to the proven performers who remained quiet throughout the tournament. Bengal captain Abhimanyu may want to adjust his game a little. Abhishek Raman is likely to be dropped on poor form. We hear that Lal is keen to hand the debut cap to young batter Sudip Gharami, who has been scoring handsomely in club cricket. Abhimanyu, however, wants Raman to continue so that the winning combination isn’t disturbed. The last call, however, may lie with the coach.

Saurashtra skipper Jaydev Unadkat (left) and Wriddhiman Saha having a chat.   -  Vijay Soneji

 

If Raman makes way for Gharami, Shreevats Goswami may have to sit out for Wriddhiman Saha, who has been included for the final.

Sudip Chatterjee fought hard in the semifinal but even his position isn't secure with Saha's return. Bengal will not drop Arnab Nandi as it will need an extra spinner in its ranks.

And playing in his 100th Ranji match for Bengal, India international Manoj Tiwary will be hungry to make a mark in his special outing.

Dry heat, no swing?

Mukesh Kumar, Akash Deep and Ishan Porel are the characters who took Bengal closer to its dream by picking 82 wickets together. But the wicket in Rajkot is likely to be batsman-friendly, with also help being there for the bowlers. Not every quick bowler relies on the conditions to get wickets. A lot also depend on their skills. How Bengal uses the old ball here will define their path in the next five days.

Ranji Trophy 2019-20: Bengal's topsy-turvy road to the final  

The spinners may come into play from day three owing to the heat. Slow left-arm bowler Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, will throw a different kind of challenge. He doesn’t turn the ball too much but gets it to drift and at times, keeps straighter lines to test the patience of the batsmen.

Saurashtra is not likely to make drastic changes to its setup. Kamlesh Makvana could just make it because an off-break bowler will provide the much needed balance along with Jadeja.

Top-order batsman Kishan Parmar is likely to make way for Cheteshwar Pujara.

Unadkat in record books

Unadkat is handling his body much better in this edition of the tournament. He is bowling short spells and making it count in the long run. A fast bowler topping the bowling charts in Ranji - with 65 wickets and counting - is a step towards becoming an even stronger pace nation.

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And Bengal likes it or not, all the attention will be on India international Pujara, who is back from New Zealand to be part of the special occasion in his hometown.

He, along with Saha, is expected to pull a lot of people to the stands.

DID YOU KNOW: Saurashtra and Bengal faced each other four times in the last 10 years with the former winning one contest. Three of the remaining games had ended in a draw. Former Bengal captain Laxmi Ratan Shukla had scored a century in their last game at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata in 2013-14.

NUMBER OF FINALS: Saurashtra is playing its fourth Ranji Trophy final in eight years. The previous teams from the region were Nawanagar and Western India. Nawanagar won Ranji in 1936-37. Western India won in 1943-44. Bengal is playing its 13th final. The last time it reached the finals was in 2005-06 and 2006-07; two years in a row.

Coach Karsan Ghavri and Cheteshwar Pujara during Saurashtra's training session.   -  Vijay Soneji

 

POINTS: With four wins and one loss in eight games, Bengal entered the knockouts with 32 points; one point more than Saurashtra. It bagged three victories and lost one.

TOP BATSMEN FOR BENGAL: Manoj Tiwary (672 runs) 100s 1, 50s 3; Anustup Majumdar (641 runs)  100s 2 50s 2

TOP BATSMEN FOR SAURASHTRA: Sheldon Jackson (783 runs) 100s 50s 3; Arpit Vasavada (650 runs) 100s 3 50s 0

TOP BOWLERS FROM BENGAL: Shahbaz Ahmed, Akash Deep and Mukesh Kumar (30 wickets each)

TOP BOWLERS FROM SAURASHTRA: Jaydev Unadkat (65 wickets); Dharmendrasinh Jadeja (29 wickets)

Squads:

Saurashtra: Jaydev Unadkat (c), Cheteshwar Pujara,  Sheldon Jackson, Kamlesh Makwana, Arpit Vasavada, Chirag Jani, Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, Harvik Desai, Snell Patel. Kishan Parmar, Avi Barot (wk), Prerak Mankad, Samarth Vyas, Vishwaraj Jadeja, Kushang Patel, Chetan Sakariya, Parth Bhut

Bengal: Abhimanyu Easwaran (c), Manoj Tiwary, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Anustup Majumdar, Shreevats Goswami (wk), Sudip Chatterjee, Abhishek Raman, Arnab Nandi, Shahbaz Ahmed, Ishan Porel, Mukesh Kumar, Akash Deep, Shreyan Chakraborty, Nilkantha Das, Agniv Pan (wk) and Sudip Gharami.

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