Thirty-three years ago, on a March morning, Bengal created history by clinching the Ranji Trophy for the first time since independence.
Thereafter, the side managed to reach the final four times - in 1993-1994, 2005-2006, 2006-2007, and 2019-2020. But, the title remained elusive.
However, under the leadership of Manoj Tiwary, Bengal once again has a chance to make it to the history books by ending the title drought when it takes on Saurashtra in yet another summit clash at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Thursday.
For the first time since that iconic win in 1991, under the captaincy of Sambaran Banerjee, Eden Gardens will host the final of the premier domestic tournament, and much before the ball gets rolling, the cricket fans and the former cricketers of Bengal are on an emotional roller-coaster.
While the entire team of 1991 - barring Sourav Ganguly, who is currently in the United Kingdom - will be present at the stadium to cheer for Tiwary and his men, the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) has opened a few stands for the spectators. Banerjee, the state’s only Ranji Trophy-winning captain since independence, will also ring the bell to commence the match.
Memories keep flowing in, but Banerjee believes that on an Eden Gardens surface, which would aid the seamers initially, winning the toss will be the key. “Toss will be very important. The side which wins the toss, should bowl first and make the most of the conditions. The game starts at 9 am, so the bowlers will have a lot to gain from that first session,” Banerjee tells Sportstar.
Having known the current players since their formative years, Banerjee believes that the team is well-balanced and there’s a perfect mix of youth and experience - a factor that would come in handy against a rather strong Saurashtra side, which will be led by Jaydev Unadkat.
“Saurashtra is a strong side, but they played their games in Rajkot, where the surface offered lower bounce. But at the Eden Gardens, the conditions will favour the bowlers and this Bengal side has the right balance and I just hope that they don’t get distracted,” Banerjee, an erstwhile national selector, says.
While it will be an opportunity for Tiwary’s brigade to chase glory, Banerjee and his teammates from the batch of 1989-1990 will also be watching the proceedings from the special VIP box allotted to them.
Arun Lal, also a member of the 1990 team, was the coach of Bengal when it reached the final three years ago, before losing to the same team - Saurashtra. A former India batter, Lal believes that this Bengal team has enough armour in its arsenal to go past Saurashtra.
“I have been saying this for the last few years that this Bengal team is among the top-five teams in the country in every format. Results are obviously not in one’s hands otherwise every team would be winning every day. We have played really good cricket and we are playing the knockouts for the third consecutive year. It’s time to win it,” Lal said.
“Earlier, we lost very crucial tosses, which made a 20-25 per cent impact on the game. I was very critical of the Rajkot wicket last time, and even when we played the semifinal against Madhya Pradesh last time, I thought winning the toss should not be so crucial. If you win the toss and want to bat first, there should be a bit of moisture in it for you to handle it till lunch and you could lose wickets if you are not careful… but if the wicket starts deteriorating from Day 2, Day 3, then winning the toss becomes crucial,” Lal explains.
When Lal took charge a few overs ago, chips were down. Bengal struggled. But over the years, the team slowly bounced back and emerged as one of the title contenders. One of the major focuses that Lal and his support staff did, was to ensure that Bengal produced a quality fast bowling attack and after hard work, results paid off. “Aakash Deep is now kind of spearheading the bowling attack, which also has Ishan Porel and Mukesh Kumar. That’s by far the best bowling attack in the country,” he says.
Though Saurashtra clinched the Vijay Hazare Trophy this season, Lal still keeps Bengal ahead in the final. “It’s our game to lose. If we play according to our potential, we don’t need to get our extra A game to the park. If we play normally, we should win. We have got Sudip Gharami in great touch, Anustup Majumdar is in form and also importantly, Abhimanyu Easwaran is in form. At the top, if you get runs, things should be fine…”
Lal’s team-mate from the 1990 side, Saradindu Mukherjee, however, believes that playing each session to its merit is the key. “You play by the session. In a five-day game, you have 15 sessions and one bad session can turn things against or in favour of you. You have to concentrate and try to dominate every session,” Mukherjee, a former India spinner, says.
“I am told there will be grass on the surface and rightly so because Bengal’s pace-bowling attack is really strong with Mukesh, Aakash Deep and Ishan Porel. I think they would go for one spinner in Pradipta Pramanik and if they win the toss, they should field and take the advantage of the first hour and a half of the wind blowing over from the Ganges. There will be a bit of moisture,” Mukherjee adds.
Saurashtra bats deep down the order and knowing the Eden Gardens wicket like the back of his palm, Mukherjee believes that a 250 to 300 will be a ‘good score’ on this track. “Anything between 250-300 will be a fighting total. From what I heard from the players, curators and of course, in the media, my understanding is, this might not be a 400-run wicket,” Banerjee says, expecting a result. “It won’t be a draw. Either way, someone is going to win this one…”
In that historic final of 1990, Bengal defeated a star-studded Delhi and the game also marked the debut of Sourav Ganguly, who later went on to become a legend of the game. And even after that final, Ganguly himself featured in a few summit clashes but failed to break the jinx and speaking at the Sportstar East Sports Conclave recently, the former India captain said that with a bit of luck, Bengal can end the trophy drought.
“They need a bit of luck. I was fortunate enough to make it to the squad in 1989-90 and be part of the winning team. After that, we have got into a few finals and even three years ago, the team played a final and lost to Saurashtra in Rajkot,” Ganguly had said, before adding in jest, “They have too much of Sourav Ganguly influence, who played three World Cup (ICC tournaments - in 2000, 2002, 2003) finals and lost all three. Jokes apart, someday they can get past…”
And when Team Bengal walks into the Eden Gardens amid cheers and fanfare, they would be hoping to turn things around. With Laxmi Ratan Shukla and Tiwary at the helm, Bengal has played fearless cricket throughout. Time to keep the momentum going for one ‘final’ time!