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Bengal’s journey to the Ranji final

Ranji Trophy: Bengal had lost to Mumbai by 132 runs in their last final appearance in 2007

Dhiman Sarkar

His right forefinger heavily strapped, Manoj Tiwary was walking out at close of play on Monday when he was asked about Bengal’s chances. “Hoye jaabe (it will happen),” said Tiwary.

When drinks were taken for the first time on Tuesday, Bengal needed two more Karnataka wickets. “Never thought we would be almost there so soon,” said bowling coach Ranadeb Bose after the 174-run win that took Bengal to their 14th Ranji Trophy final—the first since 2006-07 in which Bose himself had bowled 55.3 overs and taken nine wickets. Bengal lost to Mumbai in that final. Their last Ranji Trophy win came in 1989-90 season.

“I had woken up at 2 a.m. to check Karnataka’s highest successful fourth-innings chase. Was somewhat relieved when I saw it was 265,” he said. Bengal had set them a target of 352.

“I slept well. I knew we would get them before lunch,” was what Mukesh Kumar said when asked about the night before he took four of the five wickets to fall in the first hour after Karnataka resumed the fourth day on 98/3.

Bengal needed 17.3 overs and 115 minutes on Tuesday to roll over Karnataka on 177, making it a hattrick of semi-final losses for the reigning Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy champions. This was Bengal’s fifth outright win in 10 games, three of them away.

From an immaculate length, Kumar, 26, generated lateral movement that left batsmen edgy. Manish Pandey went in his second over of the day, KV Siddharth and S Sharath off successive deliveries in his third. Devdutt Padikkal’s resistance ended on 62 when one from Kumar bounced and squared him, the edge flying to wicket-keeper Shreevats Goswami. Ronit More tried to swing and edged to Abhimanyu Easwaran in first slip to give Kumar career-best figures of 6/61. Bowling unchanged from the High Court End, his analysis for the day read: 9-4-28-5.

“Magical spell,” said Bengal coach Arun Lal after Akash Deep chaired Kumar out of the field. It took Kumar’s first-class haul to 30 wickets in 2019-20, eight of them in the semi-final.

“The difference between Mukesh of last season and this is that he has matured,” Tiwary had said before playing Delhi here. Kumar had taken 3/75 in that rain-hit game. Next match, he took 6/62 to take Bengal home in a close Elite Group A match against Rajasthan. “I think of nothing before bowling my first ball. Seeing how the batsman is moving I make adjustments,” said Kumar, adding that he had told skipper Easwaran on Monday that he would like to bowl from the High Court End. “I did not have much pace, now I do. I have swing and seam movement. I know the more I make the batsman play, the more successful I will be.”

Kumar is from Kakarkund village in Bihar’s Gopalganj district but has been coming to Kolkata since 2003 because his father Kashinath Singh worked here. Bose spotted him and requested Waqar Younis, then bowling head of the Vision 2020 programme started by the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) in 2014, to take him in.

“Waqar was not that impressed, but agreed. Kumar didn’t have shoes, didn’t have a place to stay and then had an oedema in his leg,” Bose said. “The CAB (Cricket Association of Bengal) took care of all that and he played a few under-23 games for Bengal. He wasn’t a regular at the club-level when I asked Sourav Ganguly, who was CAB president then, if we could play him in the Ranji Trophy. ‘Are you sure,’ Dadi asked? VVS (Laxman), who was also there, saved me, saying, ‘Yes, I think we should give him a chance,’” said Bose. Laxman is still with the CAB development programme.  

“Kumar played Haryana in Lahli and dismissed Virender Sehwag. That debut saved by job,” said Bose. That was in 2015 and Kumar finished on 4/53 in the first innings.

In a pace attack also comprising Ishan Porel and Deep, Kumar’s job is to choke runs. “These bowlers hunt in a pack, they are like wolves,” said Bose. Porel was erratic on Tuesday so Kumar took on the attacker’s role. Speaking after his first innings five-for on Sunday, Porel had said: “If you see the India attack, they back and applaud each other’s performances. The same thing we are doing here.”

The trio has 82 wickets this term and such was their command over Karnataka that Shahbaz Ahmed’s left-arm spin was needed for one first innings over. With 30 wickets, Ahmed had gone into the match as Bengal’s most successful bowler. Now, Deep too has 30 and Porel 22.

It is an attack that took in its stride the suspension of Ashoke Dinda who has 420 first-class wickets. “They were under an umbrella,” said Bose, referring to Dinda. “Now they are enjoying the time in the sun.”

Bengal’s preparations began on July 1. “We would train and train. During monsoon as soon as the rain stopped, we would be back in training,” said Bose.

The first few weeks were spent working on fitness. “25 rounds of running and conscious effort to build power and strength,” said Lal. Asked about Lal’s contribution, Kumar said: “Bhaago’ (run), he would say, and we ran.”

“He (Lal) told us to imagine scoring a century while we ran and we did that too. He made us dream of winning the Ranji,” said Man-of-the-Match Anustup Majumdar, whose unbeaten 149 in the first innings and 41 in the second gave the bowlers a platform.

“Lal ji and the support staff got us fitter. Lal ji made us believe in ourselves. He said even if you don’t win the trophy, let us be the No. 1 team in fitness. No one has any fitness issues in this squad,” said Kumar.

“You can’t bowl almost 10 overs on then trot if you are not fit,” said Lal of Kumar’s effort. “At this level, you don’t clutter someone’s mind with too much talk about technique. Instead, you work on a player’s self-belief. Change the vibrations in the air with your belief,’ I would tell them,” said Lal.

And so on to the final from March 9.

“This team may be young but it has got out of a hole so many times they will go confident into the final. Also, with Shahbaz in form and this kind of a pace attack, the opposition will be in a quandary as to what kind of pitch to lay out,” said former Bengal captain Rohan Gavaskar who was here as a television commentator.

“Ishan’s celebration in the dressing room when Anustup was given not-out off a no-ball (by Ronit More) was wilder than what he did after taking his fifth wicket and that shows that this team can look at the bigger picture,” said Gavaskar who played in the 2006-07 final. This is a Bengal that smells of team spirit.

Tiwary remains the only link in the playing 11 between then and now. He finger dark and swollen, Tiwary didn’t take the field on Tuesday. He will in the final. With a potent bowling attack and lower-order helmed by Majumdar, Goswami and Ahmed that can score over 250 runs, Bengal have papered over repeated failures of the top order. “Manni (Tiwary) is a legend in Bengal cricket. He and Easwaran can do what Karun Nair did some time back, end a poor run with a 300 (328) in a Ranji final (2014-15),” said Gavaskar.

(HT Media)

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