Maharashtra's batting stars primed for Bengal challenge
The semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy. Maharashtra have been here before, but not for a while. Not since Delhi went through on first-innings lead after a bat-a-thon in Pune, nearly 17 years ago.
If anyone from Maharashtra's current squad was at the Nehru Stadium back in March 1997, it's unlikely they remember too much. For most of their lives, Maharashtra haven't come close to challenging for the Ranji Trophy. Over the last few years, they have yo-yoed between the tournament's two tiers: they made the quarterfinals two years ago, qualifying out of the Plate group, only to get relegated again the season after.
Their lack of experience at the semi-final level will not cause any of them to go wide-eyed when they step into Holkar Stadium on Saturday to face Bengal. No one will assume that anyway, considering the manner of their victory over Mumbai in the quarterfinals. But even that result wasn't as unexpected as it might have seemed. This group of players knows what winning feels like.
In January 2006, Harshad Khadiwale and Sangram Atitkar were part of the Maharashtra Under-19 team that beat Karnataka in the final of the Cooch Behar Trophy. Since then, Rohit Motwani, Shrikant Mundhe, Ankit Bawne, Chirag Khurana and Vijay Zol have all joined Khadiwale and Atitkar in winning or reaching finals of BCCI tournaments - both three-day and limited-overs - at the Under-15, U-19 and U-22 levels.
All that winning experience at age-group levels, according to Maharashtra coach Surendra Bhave, is beginning to show in the senior side.
"They have been in winning combinations throughout their junior careers," Bhave said, on the eve of the semifinal. "Many times people have asked me: Maharashtra have won about 12 junior titles in the last eight years; why are they not performing at the senior level? But yes, probably the boys needed time in first-class cricket, to get to know first-class cricket well, and now all those trophies at the junior level are probably getting translated to senior performances."
It's interesting, but not surprising - considering bowlers usually emerge at a later stage of physical development - that all the players named, apart from Mundhe, are batsmen. This season, five of them - Khadiwale, Bawne, Zol, Motwani and Atitkar - have averaged over 45. It isn't a one-off. Of the five, only the wicketkeeper Motwani averages less than 40 (39.75, since you ask) in first-class cricket, and only the 19-year-old Zol - who only made his debut this season - has played less than 35 matches. This is a serious batting side, at first-class level - and we haven't even mentioned Kedar Jadhav, their highest run-scorer this season.
Even so, most of Maharashtra's batting feats this season came against Group C opponents, and it almost seemed as if they needed that breezy run-chase against Mumbai to ratify everything that went before.
Huddled around Bhave, reporters at the Holkar Stadium still seemed unsure of how capable his batting unit was, against pace and bounce. They had seen a pitch with an extravagant cover of grass; they knew Bengal possessed one of the better seam attacks in domestic cricket; they had seen Shardul Thakur torment Maharashtra's batsmen in the first innings at the Wankhede.
They wanted to know what the coach thought.
The pitch: "I'm sure it's going to be a wonderful cricket pitch," Bhave said. "No doubt about it. Whatever it is, it's a semi-final. Teams have to play good cricket to win. I think we're not going to place too much importance on the surface, but I'm pretty sure, knowing the surface here, it's going to be a good cricket pitch."
Bengal's attack, and how his team would cope against Ashok Dinda, Sourav Sarkar and Shib Paul: "At first-class level, reaching the semi-final, I don't think you should be scared of 130 [kph]. I don't think you should be scared of anything. That's what this team is all about. If they were overawed, or scared of Mumbai, they would not have turned the match around. And that attitude, it comes from the amount of exposure these boys have nowadays, India A, Under-19 level. They are not scared of anyone."
On Maharashtra's struggles against Thakur, particularly against the short ball, and what they have done to prepare for a similar barrage: "To be honest, in that match, you had some of these deliveries which kicked up pretty sharp, from not a real short area, and it caught them by surprise. But if you look after your technique of leaving the ball, then pace is not really going to matter. It originates from good technique. Eyes on the ball, staying away from the short deliveries, and then consume whatever is bowled full. It's a very mental thing, and that's the only thing I could do right now. It's not possible to take them into the nets and do 200 bouncers and then they'll be thinking bouncers all the time and the full ball might consume them. Right now, it wasn't worth it, but we've addressed it mentally, so we should be alright."
Bhave, incidentally, had opened the batting in Maharashtra's last Ranji Trophy semifinal. He had captained them four years before that, when they went one step better. Did he see any parallels between this current team and those two sides?
"That was also pretty batting-heavy," he said. "But we also had Iqbal Siddiqui and Milind Kulkarni, who were fantastic exponents of new-ball bowling, and Shrikant Jadhav, all-round offspinner. Compared to that, in Chirag [Khurana], we have a spinner who can bat. And it's a similar team. Slip catching has been pretty good in the last 2-3 games. That is one area which we are looking to improve and it has shown improvement. It's a pretty similar team to the one we had in 1992."
That team reached the final. Can this one get there too?
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo