Punjab gunning for eighth win in a row
Despite missing the services of four key players, Punjab start as favourites in their Ranji Trophy semifinal clash against Railways at the PCA Stadium in Mohali starting from Thursday. Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Sarandeep Singh and Dinesh Mongia are all away in Goa for the final ODI against the touring Australians. Indeed the Punjab Cricket Association even made a request to the Board to postpone the semifinals by a couple of days to facilitate their taking part. The Board in its infinite wisdom refused.
Board Secretary JY Lele said in a telephonic conversation from Baroda that "the dates have been fixed five months ago. Why should we postpone it?" But it's not as if dates have always been sacrosanct to the Board. Barely two weeks ago the Ranji quarter finals were advanced by two days at Mumbai's behest since they were leaving for a one-day tournament in Australia. Pressed further, Lele first said he was not interested in answering the inquiry and then finally admitted point-blank that he had no reason to offer. Ironically if Mumbai had beaten Punjab in the quarters, they would not have returned from Australia in time for the semifinals. Ah well, one should have known better than talk to the likes of Lele!
The wicket at Mohali is traditionally a green top, likely to assist seam bowling early on the first morning. Almost inevitably the team winning the toss will insert the opposition in. The home team have been in awesome form through the season, winning all seven of their matches outright, five of them by an innings. Indeed Punjab's narrowest winning margin has been a 199-run triumph over Delhi, a stark indicator of how they have steamrollered their opponents.
Punjab's only title triumph in the Ranji Trophy came in the 1992/93 season when they beat Maharashtra at Ludhiana under Gursharan Singh. Two survivors remain from that line-up Vikram Rathour and Pankaj Dharmani. At 32, Rathour is now skipper and elder statesman. Ever since the national selectors chose him as a wicket keeper for the Challenger Series in Chennai in February, Rathour has been trying to reposition himself in this role. He kept wickets in both the prequarters and quarters.
As a paragon of consistency, Dharmani has few peers in domestic cricket. The 26-year-old who played a solitary ODI for India against South Africa in October 1996, leads Punjab's run aggregate this season with 689 runs at 86.12, including 3 hundreds and 3 fifties. Ravneet Ricky and Manish Sharma who opened the batting for India in the Under-19 World Cup in January 2000 might do so here too, in which case Rathour will drop to No.3. Reetinder Sodhi's multiple talents are a vital cog in Punjab's machinery; in six games he has the standout figures of 374 runs at 53.42 and 19 wickets at 17.52.
Although Punjab's attack is bereft of big names, the bowlers have been remarkably effective. The new ball will be in the custody of Gagandeep Singh and Vineet Kumar. Gagandeep has already snapped up 48 wickets for Punjab this season, 20 in the Cooch Behar Trophy and 28 in the Ranji Trophy at a mere 14.03 apiece. Vineet Kumar only made his debut against Rajasthan in the prequarters but was impressive, taking a wicket each in his first two overs in first class cricket. The spin department is manned by leg spinner Sandeep Sawal who trains under former India leggie VV Kumar at the MAC Spin Fondation in Chennai. Sawal has collected 18 wickets this season and will be assisted by left arm spinner Babloo Kumar. Babloo made his first class debut along with Vineet Kumar against Rajasthan and took 5/48 in the only innings he bowled before making way for Sarandeep against Mumbai.
Railways make their first entry into the Ranji Trophy semifinals since losing by an innings to Tamil Nadu in the title clash at Chepauk in 1987/88. The visitors have a strong batting line-up, making 431 and 656/5 in their prequarters against Maharashtra and 451 and 418/9 declared in their quarter final against Karnataka, winning both on first innings. That record will be severely tested on the Mohali wicket.
Middle order batsmen Yere Goud currently tops the national run aggregate with 766 runs at 95.75 including an unbeaten 221 in the prequarters against Maharashtra. Opener Amit Pagnis, an import from Mumbai, has also been in fine touch, stroking 543 runs at 60.33 so far. Indeed each of the top eight Railways batsmen, Amit Pagnis, Sanjay Bangar, Goud, Tejinder Pal Singh, Shreyas Khanolkar, S Sahu, Abhay Sharma and Kulamani Parida have at least one score above 80 in the last two games, so apart from batting deep, all their batsmen appear to be in good fettle.
But the bowling is their most worrying link. Railways have won just one of their six games outright on their journey to the quarter finals, focusing on a one-point strategy of doggedly outbatting their opponents at every stage. It worked so well that the absence of star bowler Murali Kartik, who missed the two knockout games due to a back injury, was hardly felt. Left arm spinner Tejinder Pal Singh (20 wickets) and off spinner Parida (18 wickets) have been the pillars of their bowling, which also includes Harvinder Singh, the former India medium pacer who played two Tests against Australia on their last visit in 1998.