Buzz in Bengal ahead of spicy encounter
Even as life progresses at its own pace in Kolkata, it's almost as if the Eden Gardens exists in its own bubble. There is a heightened sense of anticipation around Bengal's quarterfinal match against Railways.
Bengal are still three wins away from their third Ranji Trophy title but their journey is already attracting a buzz - ten former captains signed a bat to support the team, the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) president Jagmohan Dalmiya spoke about the rewards awaiting the team every time they cross another hurdle to the final, and the CAB has been exhorting cricket supporters to show up in large numbers and support the team.
By some quirk of fate, Bengal find themselves in a tussle with Railways, a team with which they had an acrimonious encounter in the league stages, an ill-tempered draw fuelled by a Mankading incident that had heated exchanges between the Bengal coach Ashok Malhotra and Railways captain Murali Kartik. On the eve of the quarterfinal, however, Malhotra and Abhay Sharma, the Railways coach, were keen to stress that the incident was now in the past.
"This is a new game," Malhotra said. "That was too small an incident and we are moving forward." Sharma said: "The league phase is history and we don't want to talk about history, we have to look forward, and will concentrate on the next five days to play good cricket."
Malhotra also said he wasn't too perturbed by the draw that had pitted two teams from the same group against each other: "When you're playing Ranji Trophy, there is no happy, unhappy. You have to beat three top teams, so it doesn't matter."
Bengal and Railways have had good runs since that game in Delhi. Bengal found a late surge, powered by the form of their captain Laxmi Shukla, who dug them out from 50 for 4 against Uttar Pradesh to an eight-wicket win. In the final round, a virtual knock-out against Tamil Nadu, Saurasish Lahiri's seven-for ensured Bengal's progression. Malhotra said the mood in the Bengal camp was one of quiet confidence, helped by the return of players like Wriddhiman Saha and Arindam Das (who had suffered an injury earlier in the season).
"We are just three steps away, it's a new game now, the knock-out stage," Malhotra said. "We are used to the pressure. We are peaking at the right team and the team is also better with the return of a few players. We are a very happy team. Every game we have bounced back. 40 for 5, 80 for 5, even against Tamil Nadu. I am keeping my fingers crossed we can do the same in the games ahead."
While Bengal needed a last-minute scramble to take their place in the quarterfinal, Railways had ensured their spot even before the final round with a win against Services that was built on a smart declaration. For Sharma, the performance of the team this season was as much an endorsement of a strong work ethic as it was of planning, which had helped them overcome the fact that they didn't have a home advantage unlike other teams in the league.
"We have a different culture of players, they speak different languages, but once you visit our dressing room, you'll find that everybody talks and everybody walks in the same direction, which is a very healthy sign for the team," Sharma said. "And that is why Railways have won in the past decade. We have played eight games this season and we didn't play a single home game."
Though the match is being played at Eden Gardens, the pitch can't be prepared for Bengal's strengths as it is being monitored by the BCCI. Both teams felt the track at the Eden Gardens was a good one, given how reliant they are on their seam attacks.
The Bengal pace trio of Ashok Dinda, Sourav Sarkar and Shib Paul have taken 53 wickets among them this season, while the Railways have been led by pacer Anureet Singh (35 wickets in seven matches at an average of 17.51), Ranjitkumar Mali (23 wickets in five games at 15.3) and Krishnakant Upadhyay (19 wickets in seven games at 33.15).
According to Malhotra, the pitch didn't favour either team, while Sharma said he expected the track to support seamers on the first couple of days and then help the spinner. Sharma was also confident that his young attack could thrive in the conditions.
"As far as comparing the attacks is concerned, it is immaterial. The more important thing is how we bowl on that day," Sharma said. "It doesn't matter what team you are with, it matters that you put the ball in the right areas."
Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo