And then there were four. Gujarat, Bengal, Karnataka and Saurashtra – the four teams that topped the combined table across Groups A and B during the league stage will contest the semi-finals of the 2019/20 Ranji Trophy, to vie for the title of India’s oldest cricket competition, now in its 86th edition.
While the quarter-finals played to form and seedings, there was little straightforward about the proceedings. Only two of the four clashes produced outright winners, and one of those two fixtures could very easily have panned out in entirely different fashion.
Gujarat will play ‘hosts’ at Saurashtra’s home ground, Rajkot, in the first of the semis, while Bengal will welcome Karnataka to the Eden Gardens in the second. Both the semi-finals commence on Saturday, 29 February.
Here’s a look back at how the quarter-finals played out, and a preview of the semis.
Plate Goa land on Gujarat’s platter
Gujarat were the most dominant team through the first stage of the competition. The 2016/17 champions and Karnataka were the only teams to go undefeated through the league campaign across the three Elite groups, but no team in Groups A and B could match their tally of five wins – four of which were breezy affairs. Goa outrightly bossed the Plate division, with seven wins and no losses in nine games. Although, the fact that the bulk of their contests came against inferior opponents was clear in the manner in which they were outplayed at Valsad.
Gujarat won the toss, also winning every passage of play through the four days of the tie. Seven out of nine batsmen that played in the first innings scored 49 or more, with two of them hitting centuries in captain Parthiv Patel and number eight Roosh Kalaria. Kalaria, who registered a career-high score of 118*, was involved in partnerships of 130 and 116 with Axar Patel (80) and Chintan Gaja (56) respectively, as Gujarat’s, seventh and eighth wickets propelled them to a towering 602/8 declared from an already-strong 356/6 at the time of the skipper’s dismissal.
READ 📰: Gujarat march into semifinals, Saurashtra move closer to final four while Karnataka and Bengal strengthen grip on their respective games.
— BCCI Domestic (@BCCIdomestic) February 23, 2020
Goa, in their two attempts that followed, barely crossed half of Gujarat’s first innings tally alone. As with the batting, the hosts had contributions across the line in the bowling department – medium-pacer Gaja followed up his batting heroics with a first-innings five-for, while slow left-armer Siddharth Desai scalped five in the second; left-arm medium-pacer Arzan Nagwaswalla pocketed six wickets in the game, while fellow left-arm quick Kalaria bagged a deserved man-of-the-match award by following his unbeaten hundred with match figures of 3/68.
Gujarat’s mammoth victory margin, of 464 runs, made it the biggest win recorded in this edition of the Ranji Trophy (by runs).
Saurashtra’s lower-order pushes Andhra over
A cursory glance at Saurashtra’s progression from the quarters, by virtue of a first-innings lead, points to a stroll in the park over Andhra Pradesh – they scored more than 400 in both innings, took a first-innings lead of 283, and set a gargantuan fourth-innings target of 710 – but there’s more to it than meets the eye about what transpired at the CSR Sharma College Ground at Ongole.
Saurashtra managed their two 400+ totals despite being five-down for less than 165 on both occasions; in the first, they were 67/3 and 140/5 before being rescued by a seventh-wicket stand of 157 between Chirag Jani and Prerak Mankad. 30-year-old Jani was the star of the first innings with his 121, but Mankad outdid him on the overall count by following his effort of 80 with an 85 in the second innings. The second essay from the Saurashtra perspective was particularly unique, in that every batsman from number three to 11 made at least 23. Ace opener Harvik Desai bagged a pair, but the strength of the lower-order more than made up for his absence – Saurashtra’s lower half (sixth-wicket onwards) accounted for 542 out of 845, or 64% of their total runs, through the game.
Andhra, who had qualified for the knockouts with one more win in the group stage than Saurashtra, put up a quite ordinary batting display when they got the chance. Opener CR Gnaneshwar was the only batsman to showcase some spine, top-scoring with 43 in an abject surrender for 136. Saurashtra skipper Jaydev Unadkat continued his irresistible form with the ball, claiming a four-wicket haul for the ninth time in eight matches to take his season tally up to a jaw-dropping 55. Spin spearhead Dharmendrasinh Jadeja picked five wickets over the two innings with his miserly slow left-arm bowling.
Odisha let slip to gift S/F spot to Bengal
If Andhra Pradesh were in an advantageous position at the start of their quarter-final against Saurashtra, Odisha had their necks comfortably clear on two separate occasions versus Bengal.
Elite Group runners-up Bengal were all at sea in the opening exchanges at Cuttack, as Odisha’s in-form band of medium-pacers broke their spine to leave them tottering at 46/5. By the end of the first day, however, the scorecard read 308/6. Anustup Majumdar’s stroke-laden 157, along with Shahbaz Ahmed’s 82 from number eight changed the script of the contest, at least temporarily, for there was another swing in waiting.
Bengal collapsed to 332 all out from 312/6, and when half-centuries from Shantanu Mishra and Debasish Samantray took Odisha to 135/1. The hosts looked destined to take the crucial first-innings lead. Then came yet another turnaround in fortunes, this the most decisive one: Bengal’s seam trio of Ishan Porel, Nilkantha Das and Mukesh Kumar took three wickets apiece to trigger a dramatic slide that saw Odisha bowled out for 250.
Final day's play, after Odisha scored 39/0, was called off due to the bad light.
— BCCI Domestic (@BCCIdomestic) February 24, 2020
By patiently playing out 138 overs at the second time of asking, Bengal batted Odisha out of the clash, and the competition, with Shahbaz making a second half-century in the game to follow up the fifties from Abhishek Raman and Sreevats Goswami.
So near, yet so very far for J&K vs Karnataka
As was the case with the Saurashta-Andhra Pradesh encounter, this is one that will never quite be understood by the story the scorecard tells. Karnataka may have closed out a 167-run win towards the end of the final day in Jammu, but their victory had actually been achieved two days earlier, from a quite unexpected position.
Only six overs were possible on the first two days, and J&K pacers Aquib Nabi and Mujtaba Yousuf had put in an inspired shift to bundle Karnataka out for 206 halfway through Day 3. At that point, the game was set to be a first-innings shootout; with J&K standing tall at 107/2 early on day four, a potentially decisive lead – and a maiden Ranji semi-final – appeared well within the grasp for the hosts.
However, wickets started tumbling, through a combination of nerves and potent fast-bowling from Karnataka. Abdul Samad, one of the stars of this campaign, was holding fort and quite aggressively so. The 18-year-old, who will be part of the Sunrisers Hyderabad squad this IPL, was on 43 from 49, and Jammu & Kashmir were only 14 runs behind Karnataka. But when you live by the sword, you tend to die by it too. Another attempted swipe off left-arm spinner J Suchith saw Samad give his wicket away. J&K were 192/7 then but saw their innings conclude without the addition of another run, as Prasidh Krishna polished off the tail to finish with 4/42.
Krishnamurthy Siddharth, whose 76 had formed the fulcrum of Karnataka’s first innings, top-scored in the second too with 98, allowing the visitors to set a highly-improbable target of 331 with barely 50 overs left on the final day. Krishnappa Gowtham, who hasn’t featured much since his spell-binding 14-wicket haul in the opening game of the season against Tamil Nadu, devoured the J&K batsmen with 7/54 to make the fourth innings an entirely one-sided affair.
Four former champions – who holds the aces?
Each of the four semi-finalists are former Ranji winners. While neither of Saurashtra’s titles have come as part of independent India, they more than make up for it with their three runners-up finishes in the last seven seasons. That neither of the semi-final match-ups has yet been witnessed this season adds to the intrigue of the last-four.
Gujarat’s unblemished league stage performance and their convincing quarter-final victory lends them the tag of the most in-form unit coming into the semis, but Parthiv Patel’s unit will know within themselves that they are yet to have faced an examination as stern as the one that awaits in the form of Saurashtra. Contributors across the board are the most sure-shot indicator of a team’s potency and having displayed that in full measure in the quarters, Saurashtra will rightly assume an air of confidence at their home ground, the SCA Stadium. However, Rajkot hasn’t been a fortress by any means, with Saurashtra failing to win any of their three league stage games here this season (although they did take the first-innings lead in two of them).
Bengal possesses a similarly-odd home ‘advantage’ for their semi-final, with none of the three group games at the Eden Gardens having come even close to completion owing to rain in Kolkata. The forecast for the semi-final remains clear, though, and what a relief, for it promises to be an enticing contest. Apart from Gujarat, Karnataka are the only undefeated team in the competition. They are further bolstered by the return of KL Rahul, who has his own stakes to claim, having been ignored for the India Test squad despite his outrageously brilliant run of form in white-ball cricket. It’s been 13 years since Bengal reached a Ranji Trophy final, and their quest to end that drought is going to be quite the arduous challenge.
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