The streets were scrubbed clean by Bengaluru’s mercurial showers, the cab precariously lumbered over a cratered village road, the security guard missed his bus and gulped a dressing down – the quotidian well and truly heralded the return of the Ranji Trophy after the two-month primness of the Indian Premier League.
“Good you have come early. Normally, journalists just come for the match. This is the real game,” a ground official quipped as the covers were being removed from the ground at the Just Cricket Academy on the outskirts of the city. Still groggy-eyed at 6:30 AM, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fuss.
To his credit, it was the only venue among the four hosting the quarterfinals in the city in which both the pitch and the outfield were covered. Consequently, the Bengal versus Jharkhand match faced no delay in start.
The Jharkhand pacers failed to capitalise on the dampness of the surface, straying too wide of the stumps. The openers responded by leaving the ball or hiding the bat behind the pads outside the off-stump, deceiving the bowlers into thinking they were troubling them.
Once the sun unravelled the true nature of the pitch and the bowlers overcompensated by bowling too full, the leg-side was an open field for the batters. Sudip Kumar Gharami struck a chanceless maiden first-class hundred as Bengal amassed 310 for one on the first day and 773 in the first innings.
Spilling into day three, the innings saw a fitting end in Akash Deep’s onslaught, who smoked eight sixes – all clean hits down the ground save for a classy lofted drive over covers. He raced to an 18-ball 50 and launched Bengal into the record books, which became the first team in first-class cricket to have nine of its batters score fifty or more in the same innings.
A young man from Nepal, part of the catering team, would have been impressed. “ Bhaiya, yeh practice hai ya match (Brother, is this a practice session or a match?),” he had droned in earnest from the back of the media tent as the match wore on into the second session on day one. He trudged away after the day’s play with downcast eyes and never returned.
Bengal batted on all five days of the contest and on the final day saw its stalwart Manoj Tiwary – now a minister in the West Bengal government – find form with a hundred. Between young Gharami’s and veteran Tiwary’s centuries, a transitional Bengal team strutted into its second consecutive semifinal.