The two finalists of Ranji Trophy 2019/20 cannot be more different from each other. They have faced each other off just four times in the history of the Ranji Trophy with the last clash dating back to 2013. This is Saurashtra's fourth final in the last eight seasons. They lost the three finals and will look to register a title win this time around at home.
Bengal, on the other hand, last won the title 30 years back. Their last final was 13 years ago which they lost to Mumbai. A lot has changed in the Bengal setup since then and they arrive for the final buoyed by the fact that they thumped Karnataka in the semi-final.
In what is expected to be a closely fought final, the individual player battles could play a defining role and here we identify a few of them that could hog headlines over the next few days.
Abhimanyu Easwaran vs Jaydev Unadkat
Unadkat has had a stellar season for Saurashtra. The skipper has 65 wickets in the season, the most by any pace bowler in one season of Ranji Trophy, at an average of 12.16 including seven five-fors in 15 innings. At the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Rajkot, where fast bowlers have struggled, Unadkat averages less than 20.
On the other end of the spectrum is Easwaran. One year back, he was regarded as an option at the top of the order in the national team in the longest format. Since then, Easwaran's stocks have fallen after a disastrous Ranji season. The Bengal opener has 249 runs in 16 innings this season at an average of 17.78. He has only gone past the half-century mark once in the whole season.
The odds are stacked heavily in favour of Unadkat as the final looms. The left-arm pacer had sent back Gujarat opener Priyank Panchal for consecutive ducks in the semi-finals. Even in the quarter-final, Unadkat was extremely good with the new ball and managed to find ways to eke out wickets. On current form, Easwaran is easy prey for the season's star but a class act himself, the Bengal opener will want to make a big contribution in the final to make up for his poor season.
Mukesh Kumar vs Sheldon Jackson
Sheldon Jackson is an under-appreciated talent and the wicketkeeper-batsman yet again underlined this narrative in the current season as he racked up 783 runs, the most by a Saurashtra player, at an average of 52.2 with three centuries. He is just 124 runs away from breaking Cheteshwar Pujara's Saurashtra record of 906 runs in a Ranji season, registered in 2008/09.
In equally good form is medium pacer Mukesh Kumar. He gave Bengal an unlikely win in the semi-final against heavyweights Karnataka after he snared six wickets in the second innings to derail the opposition's innings. In nine matches this season, Mukesh has 30 wickets at an average of 19.36.
Jackson has scores of 57, 11, 161, 85, 11, 103 and 0 at the home venue in the 2019/20 season. His returns at Rajkot have either been excellent or very poor and Bengal will want to ensure they keep him silent. Mukesh Kumar, who has managed to be silently effective with the new and older ball, will be key for them against a resilient player like Jackson. The 26-year-old has mostly thrived in the first innings when there's shine on the ball, but at Rajkot he might have to adapt to a flatter surface and find newer ways of keeping the batsmen guessing.
Ishan Porel vs Cheteshwar Pujara
Pujara will return to the Saurashtra side after the New Zealand tour and in focus will be his performance in the last Ranji final. The seasoned cricketer made 0 and 1 in the final last year, making it his lowest tally ever in a Ranji game. However, he has a pretty good history with Bengal. The last time these teams faced off — way back in 2013 — Pujara made a 102 in the first innings.
Porel hadn't even made his Ranji debut when Pujara last played Bengal. But the seamer has made rapid strides in age-group cricket, with the 2019-20 Ranji season turning out to be a stellar one for him. He has played just five matches this season having missed matches due to his selection in the India A side but has 22 wickets at an average of 16.81.
At 21, Porel is effectively the leader of Bengal's bowling attack and generates good movement early in the innings. Pujara's recent struggles in New Zealand stemmed from an issue against swing and extra bounce and Porel does well on both fronts. At 6'2", Porel has the height to trouble Pujara in the manner Kyle Jamieson did in New Zealand. Though there wouldn't be too much swing on offer, Porel is capable of exploiting any help from the wicket.
He ran through Karnataka's batting line-up at home in the semi-final, picking up a five-wicket haul in the first innings as the visitors were cleaned up for 122. A dangerous customer with the new ball, Porel's challenge will be to negate any advantage Saurashtra might have because of Pujara's inclusion for the final.
Manoj Tiwary vs Dharmendrasinh Jadeja
Jadeja and Tiwary are expected to be involved in a close tussle in the final with the Saurashtra spinner likely to be tasked with keeping the fluent Tiwary silent and holding one end up. Tiwary will be playing his 100th Ranji game for Bengal and has thrived on scoring quickly this season, striking at a rate over 60 in his 672 run tally that has come at an average of 51.69.
Jadeja, a stump-to-stump bowler much like his more famous namesake in the Indian side, has done reasonably well on the home surface in Rajkot. The spinner has 29 wickets this season and his modus operandi has been to frustrate batsmen by denying scoring opportunities, as evident from an economy rate of 2.74 this season with the ball. If he can keep Tiwary mute from one end, Saurashtra can attack the others in the middle-order.
Tiwary, though, has some history against Saurashtra. In 2010, when these sides met, Tiwary made an unbeaten 233 at this very venue. A season prior to that, he had also made a century at Kolkata while playing Saurashtra. The domestic veteran is a key figure in Bengal's middle-order as they play a final for the first time since 2006-07.
Anustup Majumdar vs Chetan Sakariya
Majumdar is 35 but remains a vital cog in Bengal's batting alongside Tiwary. His forte this season has been rescuing Benganl from tough situations. Against Karnataka, when the team were left reeling at 67 for 6, Majumdar walked in and batted with the lower-order to put up a game-changing 312 runs in the first innings.
Majumdar has a rather simple technique which involves playing the ball late and watching it till it crashes into his bat. The experienced batsman comes into the final on the back of two successive centuries — 149* vs Karnataka and 157 vs Odisha — in the knockout stages of the Ranji season.
His challenge in Rajkot will be to get past a well-disciplined bowling attack. With nippy pace and late swing, left-arm pacer Sakariya will pose a big challenge for Majumdar who loves to play the ball late. He has 11 wickets in six matches this Ranji season but is truly capable of stepping up to the occasion as he did when his skipper wanted him to bat at No 5 — compared to his usual No 11 position — to salvage a collapse in the semi-final. He did so with aplomb, making a crucial 45 to rescue the side from 4 for 3 in the second essay of the game against Gujarat.
With another left-arm pacer in Unadkat to guide him, Sakariya could be a handful if he gets his channels right in the final. An x-factor for certain, he will hope to contain the big guns in Bengal's middle-order, notably the in-form Majumdar.
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