Away from the top-dollar and frenzied sixes of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Ranji Trophy chugs along with its whites and longer format, laying the base for Indian cricket. The galleries may be empty, live telecast isn’t assured but there is no mistaking the weight of history and the merit in the performances, besides the ‘Discovery of India’ tours for the players. If it was train journeys in the past, now it is about airport-hopping.
Due to a world grappling with a lingering pandemic, the latest edition may have dropped anchor at fewer venues. Still there was no denying the charms of staying away from home and gingerly treading upon strange terrain. The premier domestic tournament hasn’t lost its allure and is the all-knowing patriarch to the party-hopping nephew, which the IPL essentially is though we are not doubting its inherent quality. In the immediate past, Ranji Trophy performers have taken the IPL route to national colours while Cheteshwar Pujara and Hanuma Vihari remain the exceptions.
The latest Ranji Trophy campaign that commenced late in February — due to the then prevailing Covid-19 situation — took a break to accommodate the IPL, before finding its conclusion through the knockouts in Bengaluru in June.
A new champion emerged as Madhya Pradesh defeated Mumbai by six wickets in a final that lasted five days at Bengaluru’s M. Chinnaswamy Stadium. The skies were largely swathed in clouds, the sun remained a reluctant presence, the rains threatened to gate-crash and showered a bit on the fourth day and from the one stand into which fans were allowed, the ‘RCB, RCB’ shouts were a regular chorus. Out on the ground, Madhya Pradesh stayed ahead while a stocky man watched intently from the pavilion, hands clutching a small towel while his mind perhaps leapt into the past.
Tears of joy
Chandrakant Pandit had to make amends. As captain of Madhya Pradesh, he watched host Karnataka hoodwink his men back in the 1998-99 final at the same venue. After wresting the first-innings lead, Pandit and company faltered in the second dig while chasing and Vijay Bharadwaj’s part-time off-spin inflicted soul-numbing damage. Pandit wept that day and cut to the latest June 26, he again employed his lacrimal glands but these were tears of joy. Madhya Pradesh had finally won its maiden Ranji title even if the Holkars, perhaps a previous version of the current champion, had claimed the title four times.
Mumbai scored 374 driven largely by openers — skipper Prithvi Shaw (47) and Yashasvi Jaiswal (78) — and Sarfaraz Khan’s 134 (243b, 13x4, 2x6). The surface held no demons but in a final with its scoreboard pressure, a 350-plus score can be challenging, especially with the first-innings lead being the first arbiter for winning a game provided it ends in a draw. Sarfaraz revealed chutzpah and shepherded the tail while the rival attack kept chipping away with seamer Gaurav Yadav being incisive. “Sarfaraz is a character, he has jaan,” Mumbai coach Amol Muzumdar said.
The game still leant towards Mumbai but Pandit and Madhya Pradesh skipper Aditya Shrivastava had other plans. “We believed right from the day this Ranji season started that we could win the title,” Shrivastava said later. True to his words, the climax too was secured once his men posted 536 and gained a whopping 162-run lead. Credit is due to Yash Dubey (133, 336b, 14x4) and Shubham Sharma’s (116, 215b, 15x4, 1x6) 222-run second-wicket partnership. It set up the winners nicely and once Rajat Patidar (122, 219b, 20x4) became the third centurion, Mumbai was up against the wall.
Dubey was solid, Shubham drove well but Patidar was a level above. Special batters have that extra second to time their response and Patidar was in control, essaying magnificent strokes, and also had luck going his way, being dismissed off a no-ball. The Mumbai attack featuring the experienced Dhawal Kulkarni, Tushar Deshpande, Mohit Avasthi and spinners like Shams Mulani (five for 173) and Tanush Kotian failed to stifle the runs. The odd boundary-delivery meant that pressure was non-existent for the batters. Still, Mumbai tried hard, and it is not for nothing that it has a history of winning 41 titles. “The third day didn’t go our way. In every other match, we never had to take the second new ball,” Muzumdar said.
In its second outing, dreaming about a miracle, Mumbai set out for quick runs. It was exhilarating as the entire top-order dished out cameos but this wasn’t enough and as the former champion’s second dig yielded just 269, Madhya Pradesh had to chase 108 for an outright triumph. Still there were nuggets about how teams look at Mumbai. On the fifth morning, Madhya Pradesh resorted to a negative line for about 10 overs with left-arm spinner Kumar Kartikeya bowling around the leg-stump with six men on the on-side. Gaurav bowled wide outside the off-stump and it appeared as if even Madhya Pradesh believed that Mumbai could script a miracle. Big teams have this effect as the rival first deals with the halo before locking horns with reality.
Thankfully Pandit and his wards got their heads sorted and in the chase, even if four wickets were lost, the winning runs were pocketed and soon a happy coach was levitating with his players tossing him up in the air and then holding him on their shoulders. Life does give a second chance and it was Pandit’s turn to savour this truth. In the stands, old tormentor Bharadwaj was watching and commentator and former cricketer W. V. Raman quipped to Bharadwaj: “ Viji leave da, seeing you Chandu (Pandit) may get rattled.”
That Madhya Pradesh upset Bengal in the semifinals was a pointer to its rich form and even if Mumbai out-batted Uttar Pradesh, Pandit’s men retained their edge. “I did remember that final against Karnataka. I am happy we won now,” Pandit said. The victory augurs well for cricket’s widening national footprint while Mumbai’s young squad can only get better. The Ranji Trophy devoid of hype still remains Indian cricket’s spine.
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