Reaching the penultimate stage of any tournament requires a lot of planning, resource management and proper execution of ideas. When the duration of the competition is as long as three months and is played across the length and breadth of the country like the Ranji Trophy, the challenges are even more. To be counted among the best four out of 37 teams is no mean feat, but few bad sessions from here on and the journey would count for little. With no second chance on offer, the team that blinks first slips from being a contender to another side that participated. This is the reason why performances in knockout clashes carry more weight.
All the four teams – Karnataka, Kerala, Vidarbha and Saurashtra – that have made so far in the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy are filled with characters who are expected to absorb the pressure and deliver in crunch moments. While Kerala will face Vidarbha, the defending champions who beat them in last season’s quarterfinal, in Wayanad, Karnataka will play Saurashtra in a televised game in Bangalore. Both the five-day matches start on Thursday (24 January).
Most eyes will obviously be on the trio who were a part of the victorious Test campaign in Australia earlier this month, and no one will get more camera coverage than Cheteshwar Pujara. Apart from Pujara, Mayank Agarwal and Umesh Yadav, the selectors will also keep an eye on Manish Pandey and Karun Nair and a lot of fringe players for whom the knockout clash is a big chance to impress.
While he provided the finishing touches to the highest-ever successful chase in the history of Ranji Trophy against Uttar Pradesh in the quarterfinal, just the presence of Pujara in their line-up gives Saurashtra an edge. As Jaydev Unadkat, their captain, revealed after getting to the target of 372 that Pujara was the one who made the team believe that the task was doable after they conceded a massive lead. His words inspired a young Harvik Desai to spend 376 minutes for his 116 in the second innings, ensuring that the major responsibility did not fall on Pujara.
Pujara has always stressed on the importance of domestic cricket in his career. It is during his various grinds away from the limelight that he mastered the art of patience that was displayed during his three centuries and consumption of 1258 balls in Australia. He will have a second chance to do something special for Saurashtra after dropping Mumbai’s Siddhesh Lad at first slip – an event that changed the course of the 2015-16 Ranji final.
Pujara will not only be challenged by a potent bowling attack of R Vinay Kumar, one of the toughest characters going around as was evident during his game-turning 83 not out in the quarterfinal against Rajasthan, Abhimanyu Mithun, Ronit More, Shreyas Gopal and K Gowtham, but will also have to strategise against Mayank Agarwal, with whom he batted for a considerable time in Melbourne to set up the series win against Australia.
Agarwal missed the quarterfinal because of a finger injury but is now fit. Now that he has been taken over by newfound fame it could be easily forgotten that Agarwal topped last edition's batting charts with 1160 runs at an average of 105.45. With Nair and Pandey having found form in the last game, Agarwal would be keen to build with them and put Karnataka on top. This will be his first game for the state since becoming an international player, but he said nothing has changed. "For me, it is just the same as before. Nothing changes. Preparation remains the same whether you have played for India or not. Obviously, you will have some confidence under your belt. Also, you have a bit more experience so that is something you can carry with you."
Saurashtra will draw confidence from the fact that the last time two sides met in the league stage in Rajkot, they beat Karnataka by 87 runs on a surface that was difficult to bat on. Karnataka, though, will know that it was a win the toss and bat first pitch, and Jaydev Shah in his farewell match was lucky.
Over in Wayanad, Kerala could be in a spot of indecisiveness. The pace bowling pair of Basil Thampi and Sandeep Warrier made excellent use of a green and bouncy surface during their quarterfinal win against Gujarat. They have so far taken 72 wickets between them, of which 16 came in that game. But now if they opt for a similar surface then it could boomerang since Umesh and Rajneesh Gurbani will be spearheading Vidarbha’s attack.
In a recent interaction with The Indian Express, Umesh opened up about his frustration on not getting a regular run in the Indian XI. Umesh had been lethal in 12 home Tests in 2016-17 and it was expected to mark the arrival of a bowling leader, but the emergence of Jasprit Bumrah after that has changed the equation. Umesh said that he speaks regularly to Ashish Nehra, who tells him to keep preparing hard and to perform in domestic matches so that he does not go out of sight of the people who matter.
The semifinal clash is another opportunity for Umesh in his individual chapter and he would be raring to establish his stature against batsmen of less calibre than what he comes up against at the international level.
On the batting front, Kerala will be without Sanju Samson, who fractured his finger against Gujarat. While speaking to Firstpost after that win, he had said that the difference between the Kerala side of now and the one that lost the quarterfinal to Vidarbha last season is in temperament. The players are more prepared.
When it comes to preparation, no one comes close to Wasim Jaffer, who has led Vidarbha’s batting even while Faiz Fazal and Ganesh Satish have had a hot and cold season. Jaffer, who will be 41 next month, has had scores of 206 (Uttarakhand), 98 (Saurashtra), 178 (Mumbai), 126 (Gujarat) in his last four innings. Uttarakhand were the 30th team in his illustrious career of 22 seasons against whom he made a three-figure score. He is second on the season’s batting charts with 969 runs. Only two other batsmen from the four semifinalists – Desai (738 runs for Saurashtra) and KV Siddharth (708 runs for Karnataka) – are on the right side of the 700-run mark this season.
That at this age Jaffer’s hunger for runs remains unmatched is a sign of his commitment to the sport. The two teams that draw the maximum inspiration from this sage or Pujara, who has carried on the legacy of batting time further, will take the next step forward this season.