Ranji Trophy: Bengal, Punjab clash for knockout berth

The pitch will be in focus during the crucial Ranji Trophy fixture between Punjab and Bengal. In the last outing on this ground, 24 wickets fell on day one.

Manoj Tiwary has been Bengal's lynchpin with the bat during the campaign.   -  PTI

The Ranji trophy is approaching its business end and the race for the quarterfinal berths is heating up. The ninth and final round begins on Wednesday, with Punjab taking on Bengal at the Dhruve Pandove Stadium in Patiala. 

Currently, Bengal (26 points) is fourth on the combined Elite A and B table with Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka trying to sneak past it. Saurashtra and Gujarat have already qualified for the quarterfinals.

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Manoj Tiwary (503 runs from 9 innings) has been the fulcrum around which Bengal's batting has revolved. Against Hyderabad, Tiwary became only the second Bengal batsman, after Devang Gandhi's 323 in 1998-99, to make a first class triple hundred. His innings allowed Bengal to romp to a bonus point victory, and kept its knockout hopes alive. However, he has struggled for batting form since and will hope to dig deep here. 

Bengal has momentum on its side after Shahbaz Ahmed's stunning unbeaten 61 steered it to an improbable two-wicket win against Rajasthan in the last match.

There have also been valuable contributions from Abhishek Raman and Shreevats Goswami at different stages but captain Abhimanyu Easwaran has failed to string together a consistent run of scores. A fighting performance with the bat is what Bengal direly needs right now, against a Punjab (24 points) side — No. 6 in Elite, Cross Pool — that edged past Andhra in the previous round at the same venue.

Anmol Malhotra struck a fluent 51 to take Punjab over the line. He was ably supported by the efforts of Siddarth Kaul — who took a hat-trick — Mayank Markande and Vinay Choudhary, on a pitch that saw as many as 24 wickets tumble on day one alone; the most in a day in a Ranji match in last four seasons. 

It will be interesting to see how the pitch behaves and what the side winning the toss decides to do. In recent times, more than 24 wickets (28) have fallen in a day only on two occasions - in 2011/12 & 2012/13.

Bengal will leave the spin burden with Ahmed while the promising Akash Deep (20 wickets), Bengal's leading wicket-taker so far, Mukesh Kumar and Nilkantha Das are likely to spearhead the pace department against an in-form Punjab batting led by skipper Mandeep Singh. Punjab batsman Gurkeerat Singh Mann has been sidelined by a knee injury, while leg-spinner Mayank Markande is down with flu and will not feature in this match.

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