Stars of the show

The just concluded Ranji season had quite a few heroic performances from both the youngsters and the old guard. V. V. Subrahmanyam picks his best.

LAXMIPATHY BALAJI

(Quarterfinal: Tamil Nadu vs. Bengal, Bangalore)

L. Balaji... a great comeback.-K. RAMESH BABU

It was one of the most dramatic comebacks this season. And considering that it was by a player who was lost in the wilderness for two years due to injuries, it was all the more remarkable. Laxmipathy Balaji, who last played for India in 2005, served a reminder to the national selectors that he still has the fire in him with his spirited bowling performance. The way the 27-year-old fast bowler deceived a well-set centurion Manoj Tiwari in the first innings was a fair hint of his craft on an unhelpful pitch.

When Bengal took a decisive 39-run lead and was comfortably placed at 134 for four at close on the third day, the match seemed headed for a draw and the issue, one thought, would be decided on first innings lead. But, the gangling fast bowler from Chennai, maintaining an impeccable line and length, turned the game around single-handedly with a splendid spell of 8-5-7-5 to pave the way for his team’s victory. Bengal was bowled out for a miserable 187 as Balaji finished with figures of 20-10-24-6.

It was a performance that most bowlers can only dream of. Balaji ended the season with 36 wickets.

SHIVKANT SHUKLA

(Semifinal: Tamil Nadu vs. Uttar Pradesh, Nagpur)

Shivkant Shukla... a gritty opener.-

“The passion for the sport has not died. I love to be there out in the middle and always try to give more than 100 per cent,” he says.

Joshi continues to be a key figure in Karnataka’s game-plan.

The young Tamil Nadu opener Abhinav Mukund cannot be faulted for being tempted to applaud a truly amazing rearguard action by the 23-year-old UP southpaw, Shivkant Shukla, on a benign Nagpur pitch. At the start of the season, Shukla was not even sure of retaining his place in the team. But with his brilliant knock, Shukla ensured Uttar Pradesh a place in the final.

Batting first, Tamil Nadu scored a challenging 445 thanks primarily to Mukund’s century at the top of the order. By then, it was certain that the match would be decided by virtue of first innings lead, given the nature of the pitch. With Uttar Pradesh struggling at 63 for three with opener Tanmay Srivastava, Suresh Raina and Mohd. Kaif back in the pavilion, Tamil Nadu entertained hopes of clinching the vital first innings lead. But much to the chagrin of the team, its bowlers ran into a wall, literally, called Shukla.

Playing the innings of his life, the gritty opener came up with a sterling performance. He batted for close to 13 hours to score a marathon unbeaten 178 to ensure UP the first innings lead. He found an ideal foil in Parvinder Singh (138, 462 minutes, 341 balls, 18x4, 1x6). The partnership between the two for the fourth wicket — 272 runs —changed the course of the match as UP gained entry into the final.

“I just took the challenge and tried my best to play my normal game without thinking too much about the target. I and Parvinder just kept talking to each other about the need to take the issue over by over. Honestly, we did not realise the significance of our effort till we achieved the goal (of taking the first innings lead),” explained Shukla.

CHETESHWAR PUJARA

(Quarterfinal: Saurashtra vs. Karnataka, New Delhi)

Cheteshwar Pujara... consistency is his forte.-PTI

By his sheer consistency in Ranji Trophy, Cheteshwar Pujara has clearly graduated to the big league. For the 20-year-old middle-order batsman, scoring big hundreds seems to have become a habit. After scoring a triple century in the under-22 tournament, he followed it up with another one in the Ranji Trophy within a week to grab national attention.

But the innings that boosted Pujara’s prospects was the century against Karnataka in the quarterfinals. Chasing a difficult target of 320-plus, Saurashtra was struggling at 13 for three with Pathak, Chauhan and Makvana back in the dressing room. The stage was set for the rising star of Indian cricket, who hit 306 not out against Baroda when he was only 14 years old, to make an impact. It was an occasion that demanded great temperament and technical competence against a formidable opposition. And much to the delight of his team, Pujara scored a splendid 112 not out to fashion a remarkable five-wicket win for Saurashtra. His match-winning stand of 163 with Shitanshu Kotak (87) for the fourth wicket also underlined this wonderfully gifted player’s big match temperament.

Known for his relaxed stance and playing with minimum bat swing, Pujara admits that he needs to overcome early tentative starts and also learn to handle short-pitched balls better (Ajit Agarkar troubled him with short-pitched balls in the semifinal).

“I rate my century against Karnataka as the best of my career because of the pressure I was in,” he says.

MOHNISH PARMAR (League: Orissa vs. Gujarat, Bhubaneswar)

Mohnish Parmar is an off-spinner with a unique action — he takes pride in imitating the Sri Lankan legend, Muttiah Muralitharan. The 20-year-old off-spinner demonstrated his efficacy on a slow pitch that was certainly not a nightmare for batsmen. He claimed six wickets for 63 runs to skittle out Orissa for 162.

Parmar came up with another magical spell in the second innings, claiming six wickets to bundle out Orissa for 154. His 12-wicket haul in the match enabled Gujarat to defeat Orissa by an innings and 78 runs.

“Well, because of his unique action, he can confuse a lot of batsmen and it is good for Indian cricket,” says the UP captain, Mohd. Kaif, of Parmar.

Parmar finished the season with 41 wickets. ISHANT SHARMA (League: Delhi vs. Orissa)

Ishant Sharma... fast and incisive.-

Former India star Debashis Mohanty, Basanth Mohanty and S. Khatua bundled out a star-studded Delhi for a dismal 78 in just 25.2 overs. But if Orissa thought it had the match in control, it was in for a rude shock as India star Ishant Sharma came up with a devastating spell of seven for 24 to pack Orissa off for 80.

In the second essay, Delhi was reeling at 49 for seven but thanks to a brilliant counter-attack from Sumit Narwal (66 not out, 75 balls, 4x4, 4x6) it rallied to post 150. The stage was now set for Ishant and the 20-year-old Indian fast bowler did not disappoint as he produced another great spell (four for 27) to dismantle Orissa for 96 and help Delhi win by 52 runs. Using his height and maintaining a terrific line and length, Ishant had the Orissa batsmen on the mat.

SUNIL JOSHI (League: Karnataka vs. Maharashtra)

Sunil Joshi still has fire in his belly.-PTI

Sunil Joshi might well provide the answer to all those who doubt the efficacy of an ageing cricketer in first-class cricket. At the age of 38, this crafty left-arm spinner from Karnataka made the 2008-09 season a truly memorable one — in his 100th Ranji match he claimed his fifth 10-wicket haul to bowl Karnataka to victory over Maharashtra in a crucial league match.

It was an object lesson in the art of spin bowling from someone who has been around for a long time now. Still one of the fittest cricketers, this thinking spinner from Bangalore toyed with the Maharashtra batsmen. He had an amazing analysis of 13.5-3-29-7 as he scripted Karnataka’s win.