The bridesmaids have their own hour, at long last. Saurashtra – thrice runners-up in the previous seven seasons – were crowned Ranji Trophy champions for the first time in independent India (and the first time in their present avatar, which they’ve held since 1950/51) after a first-innings lead in an attritional battle against Bengal in the final at Rajkot.
In ended a lengthy wait for a side that has consistently been around the highest echelons of domestic cricket in India, while continuing a gigantic waiting period for their opponents, who last bagged the title all the way back in 1989-90 (with a certain Sourav Ganguly making his first-class debut in the final).
Saurashtra’s victory also means that the Ranji Trophy has been captured by three different first-time winners in the last four years, with Gujarat (2016/17) and Vidarbha (2017/18) having preceded the latest champions.
The season-ender in Rajkot draws the curtains on the domestic caravan in Indian cricket for 2019/20.
A look at the major talking points from the 86th edition of India’s oldest cricket competition.
Unadkat ushers in Saurashtra’s long-deserved moment
They’ve been so close, yet so far, and for so long; in many ways, Saurashtra’s fortunes of the past decade mirror that of their captain and his individual career.
Jaydev Unadkat first played for India as long back as 2010, winning what remains, as yet, his sole Test cap during a hapless pasting at Centurion. His seven ODI appearances came in a five-month span in 2013. The last of his 10 T20Is was the Nidahas Trophy final against Bangladesh nearly two years ago. Along the way, he has been the most expensive Indian buy at two of the last three IPL auctions – only to endure largely miserable seasons both times around.
But, much like his state team, Unadkat has stayed around. He’s kept himself in contention. He’s survived. This Ranji season, he’s gone from surviving to thriving.
The Saurashtra skipper produced a season-long burst hitherto unseen from any fast bowler in the eight-decade history of the tournament, and eventually came within one wicket of the all-time record for most scalps in a single edition. 67 wickets from just nine games, seven five-wicket hauls (six of which contained at least six wickets), three ten-wicket match hauls, a second-innings seven-for to decisively swing the semi-final and the game-clinching wicket in the final – Unadkat probably couldn’t have written this script even if he were given an empty slate.
On the bowling front, it really was a one-man show: Dharmendrasinh Jadeja did plug away with the wickets as he always does, but his tally of 32 wickets wasn’t even half of Unadkat’s haul.
Saurashtra’s triumph, though, wouldn’t have been possible without the solidity of Sheldon Jackson and Arpit Vasavada. Jackson marked his 10th season of first-class cricket with 809 runs from 10 matches to finish as the team’s leading run-scorer (and the ninth-highest overall). Vasavada, arguably, was the more influential star – centuries in both the semi-final and the final earning him the Man-of-the-Match award in the two biggest games of the campaign. Either side of a torrid tour of New Zealand, Cheteshwar Pujara was able to provide his undisputed consistency to his team’s title win by piling up 575 runs from nine innings.
The Arun Lal stamp on Bengal’s class of 2020
Bengal wouldn’t have made it to many shortlists of potential final candidates at the start of the season; they last reached a Ranji final in 2007, and had suffered group stage exits in three of the past five editions. In their coach – and quite ostensibly through him – they found their gears of resilience.
When Arun Lal took up the role of Bengal mentor ahead of the 2018/19 season, he had just come out of the toughest fight of his life: one against cancer. That’s a fight that requires several servings of resilience, and this year, it looked like it was rubbing off on his wards.
In the quarter-final, having been put in to bat by Odisha, Bengal were in the dumps at 46/5 after the opening hour at Cuttack. In the semis, against Karnataka, they found themselves six-down for just 67 on day one at Kolkata.
The same man would be at the heart of the turnaround on both occasions – Anustup Majumdar hit 157 and 149 not out to take Bengal beyond 300 both times, and it would prove to be telling in the final outcome of both contests. The Hooghly-hailing veteran, who turns 36 next month, very nearly pulled off a hat-trick; Majumdar was the wall standing between Saurashtra and the first-innings for large and seemingly impossible periods of the Ranji Trophy final, before Unadkat forced final day heartbreak upon Majumdar and co.
In both the successful turnarounds, Majumdar had Bengal’s shining light of the season for company. Shahbaz Ahmed will rank among the finds of the domestic season given his superlative returns with both bat and ball – the 25-year-old claimed 35 wickets at an average of 16.80 to finish as Bengal’s leading wicket-taker, and also provided 509 runs with four half-centuries to be third on his team’s run-scoring charts. Manoj Tiwary topped the batting charts for Bengal, thanks largely to a marathon 303 not out against Hyderabad that accounted for nearly 43 percent of his 707 runs.
Is this the kind of final the Ranji Trophy needs?
Saurashtra batted 171.5 overs to post their 425 runs after taking first strike in the final. Bengal ate up 161 overs in getting to their total of 381. By the time the second innings of the match finished, we were already into the fifth morning; 332.5 overs of cricket had seen the scoreboard move at 2.42 runs per over. And it wasn’t a one-off.
Only three of the 10 first innings in the last five finals starting from the 2015/16 edition have seen sides score at a run rate of three or more per over. It is, quite undoubtedly, the ‘template’ for the Ranji final – bat first, and bat slow. Really, really slow.
That the first-innings lead is the deciding factor for a tournament final – the means to the end of the most coveted honour in domestic cricket in the country – sees teams regularly opt for a safety-first approach, and they can’t be blamed for playing the percentages.
The onus, hence, rests with the law-makers, and it boils down to a quite basic decision: Is this the kind of spectacle Indian cricket’s stakeholders wish to present for what is the biggest game of the domestic calendar?
A solution to the problem might be ambiguous and subjective, but perhaps rewarding teams for more outright victories could alter the prevailing mindset, not only for the finals but for the entire tournament?
A campaign to forget for champions recent and past
Double-defending champions Vidarbha registered only two wins in eight Elite Group outings. Domestic doyens Tamil Nadu finished with the same tally. As a result, considerably lesser forces than them, in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, were able to finish higher in the Elite Cross Pool standings.
But arguably the biggest losers – and this continues a worrying slide for Indian domestic cricket’s biggest force – were Mumbai, who failed to cross the group stage for a second straight season after having made 10 consecutive knockout appearances from 2008 onwards.
The 41-time Ranji champions had shown signs of change with a rampant 309-run victory in their campaign opener against Baroda, but that would be the only win of the season for Mumbai.
Individual gains: The ones who caught the eye
WATCH: The Sarfaraz Khan redemption story 🔥🔥
— BCCI Domestic (@BCCIdomestic) January 22, 2020
The captain of the winning outfit topped the bowling charts, but can you guess where the batting leader came from? That’s unlikely, for it came from the absolute opposite end of the tournament.
Arunachal Pradesh finished bottom of the Plate Group, effectively placing them 38th in the domestic rankings – but within their ranks was one Rahul Dalal, who came within touching distance of the all-time mark for most runs in a single season of the Ranji Trophy. The Arunachal ‘keeper toyed with the Plate bowling attacks to amass 1340 runs from just nine games, with four hundreds and five fifties to his name.
The leading batsman from the Elite Pools, too, came from a team that enjoyed scant success. Mumbai may have ended 14th out of 18 teams in the Elite Cross Pool, but Sarfaraz Khan was a man possessed as he tonked 928 runs in nine innings at a superhuman average of 154.66 (and a quite impressive strike rate of 78.64.
Saurashtra’s stars and Bengal’s best have been mentioned earlier, but the list of other notable performers was headlined by Amit Verma and Harshal Patel. Goa captain Verma topped both the batting and bowling tables for his side, with the barely-believable all-round returns of 848 runs (avg. 65.23) and 43 wickets (avg. 15.74); Patel followed up a ridiculously good domestic T20 campaign (where he was the second-highest wicket-taker as well as the fourth-highest run-scorer) with a towering haul of 52 wickets from nine matches that very nearly propelled Haryana into the knockout rounds from Elite Group C.
Haryana were pipped to the second spot in the division by Odisha, who’s successes were built around the medium-pace trio of Suryakant Pradhan (40 wickets), Basant Mohanty (34 wickets) and Rajesh Mohanty (32 wickets).
Arzan Nagwaswalla and Roosh Kalaria caught the eye with the ball for semi-finalists Gujarat, taking 41 and 35 wickets, respectively. Karnataka, the other losing semi-finalists, had standout bowling stars in Abhimanyu Mithun and Krishnappa Gowtham (34 wickets for both).
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