A riveting, two-month long group phase of the Ranji Trophy has set the stage for the knockout rounds – eight teams remain in the fold as the 86th edition of India’s oldest cricket competition enters its quarter-finals.
Four former champions – Gujarat, Bengal, Karnataka and Saurashtra – are joined by four competitors eyeing a maiden title in Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha and Goa as the business end of the Ranji Trophy 2019/20 season commences from 20 February.
The 38-team league stage, split in three divisions, provided for a gripping couple of months; only four points separated the top four among the cross-pool Elite Groups A and B, only five points separated first-placed J&K from fifth-placed Maharashtra in Elite Group C, and Goa’s quarter-final berth by virtue of topping the Plate Group was sealed only in the final round of action with Puducherry finishing two points behind in second.
For the second year running, the Ranji Trophy wasn’t kind on under-performing traditional heavyweights – Tamil Nadu have now failed to go beyond the group stage in each of the past three editions, while 41-time champions Mumbai couldn’t reach the knockouts despite a barely-believable run of scores from Sarfaraz Khan, who racked up 928 runs from just nine innings.
Here’s a lookahead to the four quarter-final ties, and how the teams shape up going into their respective match-ups.
Q/F 1: Gujarat vs Goa, Valsad
Potentially the biggest mismatch of the round, with the present format of the Ranji Trophy pitting the toppers of the Elite Cross-Pool against the winners of the Plate Group. A cursory glance on the points table shows both Gujarat and Goa enter the knockout stage without having tasted defeat yet all season – but that’s about where the similarity should end.
Goa, who were relegated from Elite Group C last time around, ensured a quick return to the elite bracket by successfully preying on the relatively weaker challenges laid out in the Plate division; four of their seven victories were innings wins, while the other three were by margins of nine wickets, 81 runs and 229 runs.
Gujarat, on the other hand, carried out their unbeaten run while rubbing shoulders against the toughest competitors – their group campaign highlighted by a four-wicket victory over defending champions Vidarbha at Surat. Five wins out of eight (versus Hyderabad, Kerala, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, aside from the Vidarbha result) saw them emerge clear winners in the Elite division (three points ahead of Bengal), although they did concede the first innings lead in all three of their drawn rubbers, against Bengal, Rajasthan and Delhi.
Despite having to play away from their traditional center as Motera underwent a facelift, Gujarat coasted in each of their home games across the state – beating Kerala by 90 runs and Vidarbha by four wickets at Surat, Punjab by 110 runs at Valsad and Andhra Pradesh by eight wickets at Nadiad. With the quarter-final being hosted at Valsad’s Sardar Vallabhai Patel Stadium, Gujarat will be nothing short of overwhelming favourites against the visiting Goa.
Priyank Panchal (392 runs from 13 innings) endured a quiet run by his lofty standards of recent years, but Bhargav Merai and Manprit Juneja made up for it as both the now-experienced regulars finished with well above 400 runs. The bowling department has been fronted by a three-pronged left-handed threat: medium-pacers Roosh Kalaria and Arzan Nagwaswalla shared 58 wickets between them, while spinner Axar Patel snapped 24 strikes in just four games. A rapid 89 in the last group clash against Andhra Pradesh shows the discarded India all-rounder’s batting form isn’t too bad either.
Goa, meanwhile, took full advantage of their advanced potential to pile on the misery on their Plate opponents – five different batsmen finished the group stages with 540 or more runs, and five different bowlers returned 19 or more wickets. Their turbo-charged run into the knockouts has been powered by a possessed display by captain Amit Verma, who leads both the batting and bowling charts for his team with a staggering 791 runs and 41 wickets.
Q/F 2: Bengal vs Odisha, Cuttack
After missing out on the knockouts last season, Bengal return to the mix following a pretty straight-forward league phase. Their only defeat, away to Vidarbha, was sandwiched between a strong run of results on either side; Bengal took three points against eventual table-toppers Gujarat by virtue of a first innings lead, and were able to finish second across Groups A and B despite all three of their games in Kolkata being rain-marred draws.
Odisha, on the contrary, have allowed most of their momentum to fizzle away after a strong start to the season – having claimed two innings wins and a 10-wicket victory in their first three outings, Odisha were only able to add two further wins in their last six games, which included losses to J&K (by four wickets) and Maharashtra (by 10 wickets). In the final calculations, their one-wicket win in a low-scoring thriller against Haryana at Rohtak proved pivotal, with Haryana finishing two points behind Odisha in Group C.
Bengal, while never in real danger of missing out on the knockouts, closed out tense wins in their last two matches, chasing down 320 with two wickets to spare versus Rajasthan before edging Punjab by 48 runs in a low-scorer at Patiala.
Manoj Tiwary towers above the rest of his teammates with 641 runs from 11 innings (next-best Abhishek Raman has 337 runs), although 303 of those came in one unbeaten marathon against Hyderabad; take away that Tiwary epic, and none of Bengal’s batsmen average 40 so far in the competition. Bengal do appear to have their bases covered on the bowling front, with slow left-armer Shahbaz Ahmed (29 wickets) and medium-pacers Akash Deep (25) and Mukesh Kumar (19) among the wickets. 21-year-old seamer Ishan Porel returned 12 wickets despite featuring in only three games before heading to New Zealand with the India ‘A’ squad.
Odisha’s batting through the group stage was led by Debasish Samantray (467 runs) and Shantanu Mishra (464), while Biplab Samantray, too, crossed the 400-run mark. The medium-pace battery did pretty much all the damage for Odisha with the ball, as Suryakant Pradhan, Rajesh Mohanty, Basant Mohanty and Debabrata Pradhan combined to take 119 wickets at an average of 20.81 – that’s more than 90 percent of the wickets taken by Odisha’s bowlers. The flipside to that is a weak-performing set of spinners to call upon, who returned a mere 13 wickets through the group stage.
The comfort of playing at home for Odisha provides, potentially, a greater semblance of balance to this quarter-final. Three of Odisha’s four league outings at Cuttack resulted in resounding wins, and no opposition team is yet to have touched 300 in eight innings here this season. With Bengal having had only one total above 320 in their eight games, we could be in for something interesting.
Q/F 3: Karnataka vs Jammu and Kashmir, Jammu
Death, taxes and Karnataka making the knockouts. The Ranji Trophy reverted to a quarter-final and onwards knockout structure in 2008/09. In 12 seasons since, Karnataka have now made it till here on 11 occasions – four of the last five appearances have resulted in semi-final finishes at the very least. Oh, and they’re also reigning domestic one-day and T20 champions, having clinched two tense finals (both against Tamil Nadu) to win both the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy for the 2019/20 season.
The odds couldn’t be a lot steeper for a Jammu and Kashmir side that has made it to the knockout rounds of the competition for only the second time since 2002, and the first time in six seasons.
That said, the unfancied of the two teams in this clash do come into the quarters on the back of a wholly impressive Group C display that saw them lose just once – more than commendable for a side that had little home comfort through the campaign, thanks to the climate (literal, as well as political). Five of J&K’s bowlers have over 20 wickets to their name; of the nine batsmen to have batted nine or more times, six have amassed 330 or more runs. Abdul Samad (547 runs) and Umar Nazir Mir (28 wickets) lead the individual charts, but the most encouraging sign is that more and more players are standing up for a state whose players are rarely part of national conversations.
Quite the contrast, isn’t it, to a Karnataka outfit that perennially boasts a squad almost entirely made up of players either knocking on the national team’s doors, or very much inside it. Such are the luxuries that they won’t dearly miss KL Rahul, who is back in the country but has been asked to train with the NCA – although what a time it would have been to welcome him back into the setup. They do reunite with Manish Pandey, although the captaincy duties will stay on with Karun Nair.
Karnataka’s group stage campaign wasn’t quite a breeze; they conceded the first innings lead in three of their four draws, and two of their wins were incredibly tight contests (including a humdinger of a last-over finish to begin the season against arch-rivals Tamil Nadu). Still, they get to boast of an unbeaten run into the knockouts – something only two other teams in the top-two groups can stake a claim to. The quietly consistent Devdutt Padikkal leads the batting line with 547 runs, 119 clear of fellow top-order bat R Samarth. Seamers Abhimanyu Mithun and Ronit More have both crossed the 20-wicket mark, while Krishnappa Gowtham has 21 wickets from only four appearances (14 of which came in an individual outing for the ages in the nail-biting opener versus Tamil Nadu).
Q/F 4: Saurashtra vs Andhra Pradesh, Ongole
The last of the quarter-finals, at least on paper and form, promises to be the closest of the lot. Four points separated these two teams after eight group stage games, and their numbers break down with neat symmetry – Saurashtra have been the considerably better batting unit (averaging 33.33 to Andhra’s 27.12), while Andhra Pradesh have kept their necks clear on the bowling front (averaging 23.09 compared to Saurashtra’s 26.90).
Keep their close proximity to each other on this season’s points table aside, and there’s a sizeable gulf in the recent history of these two sides. Andhra Pradesh are in the Ranji knockouts after five years, while Saurashtra have been runners-up thrice in the past seven editions.
Where the Andhra faithful will feel that’s negated is in the venue of the contest; they get to host Saurashtra at Ongole, where they have enjoyed dominant victories in all three games this season – by nine wickets against Delhi, an innings and 96 runs against Hyderabad, and seven wickets against Kerala.
Saurashtra fans could counter that with their own string of results on the road: a five-wicket win against Himachal Pradesh at Dharamsala, an innings thumping of Railways at Vizag, a first-innings lead over Madhya Pradesh at Indore, and a four-wicket win over Baroda at Vadodara.
The bridesmaids of recent past will undoubtedly miss the solidity of one Cheteshwar Pujara (509 runs from eight innings this season), but Saurashtra have two others who’ve been doing the mountainous run-scoring in Sheldon Jackson (605 runs) and Harvik Desai (503). Their undisputed star, though, has been their skipper – Jaydev Unadkat has a staggering 51 wickets to his name at an average under 12, amounting to more than 40 percent of the wickets taken by Saurashtra’s bowlers.
Andhra Pradesh’s bowling leader KV Sasikanth has an impressive 35 strikes himself, but he’s been helped by a fairly cohesive bowling attack; Andhra possess seven different players with 10 or more wickets to their name. The seasoned Ricky Bhui tops their batting charts with 431 batsmen, but worryingly for the unexpected quarter-finalists, none of the other batting options available for this tie have averaged more than 33.
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