April 20, 2001

This week last year: Epic knocks in the Ranji semi-finals

This week last year was a truly memorable one for Indian cricket. With the Ranji Trophy building up to its climax, the two semifinal matches served up a surfeit of competitive, exciting cricket. The first semifinal saw Hyderabad travel to the M Chinnaswamy Stadium to take on Karnataka. At the other end of the spectrum, Mumbai played hosts to Tamil Nadu at the Wankhede Stadium.

At the Wankhede, it was hosts Mumbai who won the toss. Skipper Sameer Dighe put Tamil Nadu in to bat, hoping to make use of the early assistance to seamers. At the end of the first day, Tamil Nadu were 397/4, and it appeared that Dighe's plans were mislaid. Hemang Badani, playing the innings of his Ranji Trophy career, caressed the ball around the park, timing the ball elegantly to end the day unbeaten on 162, including 25 boundaries. For company, Badani had a belligerent Robin Singh, unbeaten on 142. As it turned out, the beginning of the second day vindicated Dighe's decision to put Tamil Nadu in. A combination of loose batting from the visitors and disciplined bowling saw Tamil Nadu succumb to 485 all out. Badani did not add to his overnight score and Robin Singh went on to make an unbeaten 183 (18 fours, 5 sixes).

At the close of the second day, Mumbai were 141/4, still behind Tamil Nadu by a fair bit. Dighe, who made 55 at the top of the innings was clearly a worried man. The only thing the Mumbai skipper could take heart from was the fact that Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli were still at the crease. The third day's play was a demonstration of the technical and mental superiority of Tendulkar over the other players. While wickets fell all around him, Tendulkar cracked a superb double ton, reaching 213 not out at the end of the day and taking Mumbai to 470/8, still 15 runs behind. When he had less than 40 runs to his name, Tendulkar was dropped by JR Madanagopal in the slips. The miss cost Tamil Nadu a place in the Ranji final.

On the morning of the fourth day, Tendulkar batted through a tense period with the last two batsmen and took Mumbai past the Tamil Nadu score. When the last man, Santhosh Saxena, was dismissed, Mumbai had a narrow, yet back breaking, lead of 5 runs. Tendulkar's contribution was a matchwinning unbeaten 233 (565 mins, 334 balls, 21 fours, 5 sixes). In their second essay the visitors collapsed to 171 all out, leaving Mumbai a target of 167. Having no trouble knocking off the runs, Mumbai won outright and earned a place in the Ranji final.

Meanwhile, Hyderabad's dream run continued as VVS Laxman spearheaded a victory by virtue of first innings lead against Karnataka. On being put in to bat by Karnataka skipper Venkatesh Prasad, Hyderabad amassed a mammoth 711/8 declared. The man who proved to be the undoing of the hosts was none other than VVS Laxman. Taking the depleted Karnataka attack apart, Laxman spent more than 12 hours at the wicket in his knock of 353. Striking two sixes in addition to an awesome 52 boundaries, Laxman gave the Karnataka bowlers a hard time. Young Barrington Rowland will still have nightmares about the game, having dropped a dolly from Laxman at mid-on when the Hyderabadi stylist had less than 40 to his name.

But it was not an entirely lone hand from Laxman. Mohammed Azharuddin, leading the Hyderabad side played characteristically for 123 (291 mins, 204 balls, 18 fours). The pair added 288 for the third wicket. Ironically, the lid was blown on the matchfixing controversy on the same day, with Hansie Cronje admitting that he had indeed received money to underperform in cricket matches. Cronje also said that it was Azharuddin who introduced him to the bookie later infamously known as "MK" or "John".

Allegations of matchfixing notwithstanding, it was a good week for Hyderabad cricket. After piling on the runs, the Hyderabad team dismissed Karnataka for 557. Thereby taking the crucial first innings lead. With so much time already being spent in the Hyderabad first innings, there was almost no chance of a result in the game. Relying on their veteran spinners Kanwaljit Singh and Venkatapathi Raju, who scalped seven wickets between them, Hyderabad went ahead of Karnataka. Making a pointless 236/6 declared in their second innings, there was champagne all around for the visitors as the match ended in a tame draw.

Hyderabad and Mumbai lined up for the final, but that is another week, and another story. This week last year was one of epic performances with the bat, 150s for both Robin Singh and Badani, a double ton for Tendulkar and over 350 for Laxman. Big scores from three cricketers who are now hogging the limelight at the highest level.