Bengal's Sudip Chatterjee revisits bittersweet Ranji Trophy final

Sudip’s efforts helped Bengal come close to winning the Ranji Trophy after a gap of 30 years. The batsman looks back on the thrilling final.

Sudip Chatterjee on reaching his half-century during the Ranji Trophy final against Saurashtra.   -  Vijay Soneji

The 2019-20 season of the Ranji Trophy was a season of revival for Bengal after years of blowing hot and cold. It was the first final for Sudip Chatterjee, who made his debut for his State side in 2012-13. Before this season, two semifinal finishes – in 2013-14, and 2017-18 – were the best he saw his side perform. This time, expectations were high after the memorable semifinal win against Karnataka but despite its best efforts, his side fell narrowly short. Although Sudip hadn’t been personally enjoying a very productive season with the bat, the journey was exhilarating.

“For a player, playing the Ranji Trophy final is a big deal,” he told Sportstar in an interaction as he revisited the momentous occasion.

“I have been playing for Bengal for the last seven-eight years; before this season, I played two semifinals, and we lost. It was disappointing for us that whenever we would make the semifinals, we wouldn’t make the final. When we made the semifinals this time, we were determined to cross the hurdle. We did that, and it was a source of joy for us,” Sudip said.

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The semifinal win at Eden Gardens was on the back of some fine bowling from Bengal’s seam trio – Ishan Porel, Mukesh Kumar and Akash Deep. They unsettled the potent batting line-up of Karnataka to script the win alongside middle-order batsman Anustup Majumdar, who became the man Bengal would look up to during a crisis. Seamers were in business in the other semifinal as well, played between Saurashtra and Gujarat; as many as 34 wickets fell to them in a see-saw battle in Rajkot.

It was the same venue for the final, so Bengal was surprised when it saw the pitch did not offer much movement or bounce.

“When the semifinal was played there, seamers took a lot of wickets. We thought there would be some help for the seamers in the final, too. After the first look at the wicket, we thought there would be carry and movement – a little help for the fast bowlers early on. But when the match began, we realised the wicket wasn’t the type we thought it was. The carry wasn’t there; the odd ball was staying low. Even Saurashtra played that game with four seamers, so they also probably expected a semifinal-like pitch in the final. But it wasn’t like that,” he noted.

Battle of attrition

Saurashtra took more than two days to score 425 in the first innings. Arpit Vasavada, the middle-order batsman, scored his 103 at a strike-rate of 37, and Cheteshwar Pujara registered a strike-rate of 28 for his 66. “As the game progressed, the wicket became slower. Some of the deliveries stayed low. That’s why strokes couldn’t be played easily. Saurashtra probably thought it was safer to play slowly initially before scoring some runs. They also probably realised the match would be of one innings only, so they wanted to ensure they put up a big total. That was their approach,” Sudip recalled.

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For the seamers, a nagging line and length would be the only recourse left as there wasn’t much help from the surface. “As we weren’t getting much help on that pitch, we wanted to minimise our loose deliveries. On that slow wicket, wickets were hard to come by; so the plan was to restrict their run flow. Even if a wicket fell after a long gap, if runs weren’t coming, the pressure would be there on the batting team.”

Crucial runs

Early on day three, the ninth wicket fell for Saurashtra with 381 on the board. No. 10 Dharmendrasinh Jadeja and No. 11 Jaydev Unadkat took the final total to 425 before Unadkat was dismissed by left-arm spinner Shahbaz Ahmed. In the final analysis, those runs proved to be crucial. “When there is a 30-40 run partnership for the last wicket, it’s a big advantage for the batting team. Sometimes, those runs assume a lot of importance. If that last wicket partnership hadn’t happened, we may have been able to win,” Sudip said.

Digging in for long hours became the mantra for the Bengal top order as well. The openers had been dismissed quickly, with Abhimanyu Easwaran, the captain, unable to end his run drought. It was left to Sudip, at No. 3, and the in-form Manoj Tiwary, to steady the ship. “The ball wasn’t coming on to the bat. It was getting difficult to score against fast bowlers because the pitch was up and down (sic). So we would have to play straight. So I just planned to punish the poor deliveries against the fast bowlers, block the good deliveries, and take the singles,” Sudip said.

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Careful against the seamers, Sudip looked for scoring opportunities off Jadeja, the left-arm spinner. He punished the odd long-hop to collect boundaries. “He was a left-arm spinner, and I’m a left-hand batsman, so that was suitable for me. I was trying to avail the opportunities to score or to improvise and run a single or double. Eventually, runs would have to be scored, so I was trying to target some bowler so I could keep scoring from one end, or punish the loose deliveries. So that was in my mind. When it was difficult scoring off the fast bowlers, availing of the opportunities provided by the spinner was very important. That is what I was trying to do,” he said.

Tiwary struck two boundaries in his 116-ball 35 before falling lbw to Chirag Jani. Importantly, he had helped to take the team score to 124. Given the form he was in, with more than 600 runs under his belt in the season, the team would have wanted him to register another big score. “We all know what an accomplished player he is. He scored runs when they were needed in the league stage, barring one or two matches in the initial period of the season. A batsman can’t be expected to score in every game. He scored a 300, a century, and scored in the important matches. When we were 40 for 2, Manoj and I had a good partnership; if it had continued, it would have been better.”

Testing period

Tiwary had a reprieve before that; after having his off-stump knocked over by Jani, off an inside edge, he started his walk back to the dressing room when Jani was found to have overstepped. Sudip, on the other hand, was given out lbw but he was confident he had an inside edge, and successfully reviewed the decision. Before stumps on the third day, Sudip and Wriddhiman Saha – the India wicketkeeper volunteered to participate in this contest after touring New Zealand with the Indian team – survived a furious spell of reverse-swing bowling. With the ball moving both ways, the pair went into their shell.

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“[Jaydev] Unadkat was bowling at that time. The ball was reversing, and they were bowling in good areas. We thought if we could survive the next half hour or so the next morning we can start afresh and run-making would become easier, [and] that is what happened.”

They had stepped out of their crease as well, when taking their stance, to cover the swing. “Wriddhi and I were discussing that on such a wicket – low and slow – the chances of being dismissed bowled or lbw are higher. If we step out a little, the chances of those dismissals are lowered. The chances of being out caught behind were anyway low because of the slowness of the wicket. The swing could be covered,” Sudip recalled.

End of vigil

It was in the second session on day four that Sudip’s vigil finally came to an end. Ironically, he fell to the left-arm spinner – Jadeja – after playing the seamers, including the dangerous Unadkat, with caution for a day. Sudip, however, pointed out there was a new variable in the equation – the footmarks at an appropriate spot in front of him as he faced Jadeja. “There was a small problem – I had to deal with a patch of rough on the pitch in front of me when I was facing the spinner, because the fast bowlers had been bowling right-arm over the wicket from the other end. When the ball was landing on the rough, it was getting a little difficult to play because the ball was bouncing a bit more than usual and spinning more than usual sometimes. That was probably my weak point (sic); to negotiate it, I was stepping out of the crease to play, or trying to play off the back-foot,” he said.

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He added: “The ball that got me out, I could have defended it better, or maybe negotiated it by stepping out more. Regret is of course there; after all, it’s a Ranii Trophy final, and a crunch situation where the team needed [more runs]. It’s a big thing, being a Ranji Trophy champion.”

The dismissal – Sudip was caught by the short-leg fielder – brought about a mini-collapse. Saha and Shahbaz fell in the same session and Bengal was six down for 263. However, Anustup and Arnab Nandi galloped along in the final session, Jadeja being reserved for some punishment. Bengal looked up to Anustup after his rescue acts in the quarterfinal and the semifinal.

Sudip Chatterjee plays a shot during the Ranji Trophy final against Saurashtra.   -  Vijay Soneji

 

“Cricket’s all about confidence. He was among the runs and very confident. The runs were coming quickly, and one could discern that he was in very good form, and had confidence. He was the one who opened up the scoring (sic). Here was a No. 6 or No. 7 batsman, in good form, and a crunch situation; he had delivered in crunch situations in the past, so all of us knew that the contest was on. Anustup was playing well.”

Crushing blow

Seventy-two runs remained to be scored on the final day to take the all-important lead. But after seven runs were added to the overnight total, Anustup was dismissed lbw by Unadkat. Soon after, Akash Deep was run out by Unadkat as he failed to land his foot behind the line after safely playing a delivery. With only No. 11 left to bat, the contest was effectively over, despite best efforts by Anustup’s ally Arnab Nandi (40 n.o., 126b). “If Anustup had batted a bit longer, or if Akash Deep hadn’t been run out like that, I think we would have been able to get closer to the target or even win the match,” felt Sudip.

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After the loss, Easwaran said the second session on day four, when the side lost three wickets, was the turning point. Sudip concurred with his captain. “On that wicket, if a batsman gave himself time to settle in, it was possible to be entrenched. On that wicket, if three batsmen – including two set batsmen (Sudip and Saha) and Shahbaz Ahmed, who is also a good batsman – get out quickly, it was a turning point in the match.”

Forty-four runs separated the two teams, and it was a contest decided solely on the first innings. “It was a great experience, playing the Ranji Trophy final. It would have been even better if we were able to clinch the trophy, because it is a big achievement in a player’s life. It didn’t happen this year, but we’ve spoken to each other and we want to try to make it happen next year,” Sudip said.

Commenting on the influence of Arun Lal, the head coach, he said: During his playing days, [he] was very hard-working. He has a great record in the Ranji Trophy. He made us work very hard as well. We’ve seen we can achieve results if we work hard. Next time, we will work even harder and lift the cup.”

Lockdown training

During the lockdown, the coach has been monitoring the fitness regimens of the Bengal players via Google Duo, revealed Sudip. Without access to the stadium or the gymnasium, Sudip has had to make do with exercises at home. “In the terrace of my flat, whatever training was possible, I did, such as core exercises, or skipping, and I continue doing it,” he said.

“We have no news yet from the BCCI or the CAB about when facilities can reopen for our training,” he said.

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