Ranji Trophy semifinals: Charged-up Bengal ready for Karnataka

The inclusion of India international K.L. Rahul bolsters Karnataka's batting, although it remains to be seen who will make way for the star batsman.

The Bengal cricket team warms up at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Friday.   -  PTI


After a three-month league phase that saw many high points and close contests, the Ranji Trophy is nearing its end. Karnataka and Bengal will face each other at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata from Saturday for a place in the final of the country's premier domestic cricket competition.

There will be the added attraction of ‘limited DRS’ — one of the most sought-after firsts — which comes with a slow-motion camera, a pitch map and spin vision to aid better umpiring. This version of the review system though will not comprise Hot Spot, Snicko or Ball Tracker, the key elements of the DRS used in international cricket.

Interestingly, it was Karnataka which was at the receiving end of controversial decision-making during last season's Ranji semifinal against Saurashtra in Bengaluru, when Cheteshwar Pujara was given a reprieve twice. He went on to make an unbeaten 131 in the second innings, costing the host a place in the final. Certain decisions also went against Saurashtra when it bowled.

Road to semifinals

Both Karnataka and Bengal haven't been consistent but have seized the big moments throughout the season. Karnataka beat Tamil Nadu in a thrilling finish and overcame an out-of-sorts Mumbai but was held to a draw by Himachal and given a brief scare by Jammu & Kashmir (J &K) in the quarters.

READ| Ranji Trophy: K. L. Rahul's return a 'big boost' to Karnataka, says K. Gowtham

But it picked up its game when needed, with convincing victories over Baroda in a must-win last league game and eventually, J & K. Krishnappa Gowtham's seven for 54 vaulted Karnataka to a 167-run win in Jammu.

The off-spinner, hit by injuries, has played only five games this season but has had a big effect on the result in each of those. A batting average of 33 and a bowling average of 17.79 with 29 wickets will be reassuring for the eight-time champion.

The inclusion of India international K.L. Rahul bolsters Karnataka's batting, although it remains to be seen who will make way for Rahul: Devdutt Padikkal, the team's highest run-scorer this season, may have to warm the bench.

K.L. Rahul at a practice session at Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Friday.   -  PTI


"It's great to have KL back for the semis. It's a big boost for Karnataka and a great positive for me as well. I can go and speak to him about strategies and he can share his inputs. So yeah as far as picking the XI is concerned, it's a good headache to have," said Karnataka skipper Karun Nair.

Karnataka has the pace attack of Prasidh Krishna, Ronit More and Abhimanyu Mithun at its disposal, with the left-arm pace of Prateek Jain an added option.

Team effort

Bengal on the other hand, one could argue, has qualified without playing its best cricket. However, a number of players have put their hands up in moments of need. Manoj Tiwary has been the batting mainstay, with twin fifties against Punjab on a raging turner in Patiala highlighting his evolved set of skills in trying conditions.

Bengal also has had valuable contributions from Anustup Majumdar and Shreevats Goswami but left-arm orthodox Shahbaz Ahmed has emerged as the trump card.

His 30 wickets at an average of 15 coupled with 427 runs in 13 innings at 38.81 have helped the side sail through tough times. Bengal captain Abhimanyu Easwaran's form in the current season — 223 runs at 18.58 in 14 innings — will worry the host. Akash Deep, who hurt himself in the last league game against Punjab, is fit and available for selection.

Pitch talk

When the covers came off, it wasn't easy to distinguish the pitch from the square surrounding it. It was evenly green but soon, the groundstaff began taking the grass off, with the brushes and then a mower. It remains to be seen how much of the grass survives by the time the match starts.

"It is a sporting pitch. Frankly speaking, green wickets are no more an oddity in India. It's either that or rank turners. But yeah, we are considering going with three seamers," said Bengal coach Arun Lal.

Bengal last reached the Ranji Trophy final in 2006-07, when it lost to Mumbai. That was its second consecutive Ranji final, having gone down to Uttar Pradesh the previous season. "We haven't realised our full potential yet," said Tiwary. "Once we deliver on the promise, we can be unstoppable. It's the leap from semis to finals where we seem to flounder. Hopefully, it'll be a different story this time."

The team will bank on Tiwary's pragmatic approach and coach Lal's gung-ho attitude, against a formidable Karnataka, to add a new chapter to Bengal's cricket history.

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