March 28, 2001

Surprise results lead to unlikely Ranji semifinal line-up

Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad, Karnataka and Delhi eliminated. Railways and Orissa in the semifinals. To say that this has been a Ranji Trophy of surprises would be an understatement.

There were a few results in the league stage that did not quite live up to expectations. But in the knockout stage, where the men are generally separated from the boys, it was thought that the big guns would be there at the finish. But some surprise results have led to the rather strange situation where none of the four semifinalists of last season - champions Mumbai, runners-up Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka - have made it to the last four as the national championship moves into the penultimate round.

The pre-quarterfinals were not without unexpected happenings. Karnataka had to come back after conceding a slim first innings lead to Assam. Railways upset Maharashtra at Pune. Madhya Pradesh defeating Hyderabad was a minor surprise. But not many would have expected the shock results to spill over to the quarterfinals. The biggest surprise of this year's competition however came at this stage when Punjab humbled 34 time champions Mumbai on their home turf at the Wankhede stadium. Railways, as if to prove that their victory over Maharashtra was no fluke, now got the better of six time champions, Karnataka. And finally Orissa scored over Madhya Pradesh at Gwalior.

All these unusual results have left a most unlikely pairing for the penultimate round - Baroda vs Orissa at Baroda and Railways vs Punjab at Mohali - to be played from April 5 to 9. Railways, who finished second in the Central Zone points table, are entering the semifinals for the first time since 1987-88 when they were runners-up to Tamil Nadu while this is Orissa's maiden entry into the Ranji Trophy semifinals. This has been a great season for the eastern state who topped the East Zone points table by a long way. They will also be heartened by the fact that Shiv Sundar Das and Debasish Mohanty will be available to play the semifinal. Baroda, who were third in the West Zone points table, have not won the Ranji Trophy since 1957-58 and their last entry into the semifinals was in 1993-94. They are likely to be without Zaheer Khan, who is in the Indian team for the one day series against Australia. In the scenario as it stands now, Punjab who have won the national championship in 1992-93, must be favourites for the title. particularly after their victory over Mumbai. One must also not forget that they have won all their seven games so far. However they will be without the services of three key players, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Mongia, all in the Indian squad playing the one day internationals against Australia and this can prove to be a major handicap.

All said and done, going by the form book it should be Punjab and Baroda contesting the final. However given the fact that surprises have been the order of the day, from the league stage to the knock out, another unexpected result may be just round the corner.