Consistent Bengal brace for hungry Madhya Pradesh
Bengal's consistency this season can't be overstated. They won two games in the league stage and lost none, and their only blip came in the first game against Karnataka when they dropped first-innings points. Bengal never conceded the lead thereafter, and eventually went on to finish second in Group A. A graph of their performance would reveal a smooth upward stroke gaining height with every game. Minus the backstory it would be easy to believe such an impressive performance was borne out of a harmonious set-up that nurtured the winning habit. But there was very little that was harmonious about Bengal's build up to the season.
Their pre-season tour to Sri Lanka was tarred by reports of alleged infighting, culminating in Laxmi Ratan Shukla stepping down as captain and Manoj Tiwary replacing him. Then there was the spat between Tiwary and Gautam Gambhir in Delhi and the controversy over an 'underprepared' Kalyani pitch after the two-day finish against Odisha. Bengal also had a revamped bowling attack that had no place for veteran offspinner Saurashish Lahiri, and had Pragyan Ojha making his first appearance for the team. The batting unit also had a fair bit of green about it. So what went right for the team?
"I would say Sairaj Bahutule has played a very important role along with [Cricket Association of Bengal president] Sourav Ganguly because he also chips in with his valuable inputs [on] how to go about as far as all these things are concerned," Tiwary told reporters after Bengal's practice session ahead of their quarter-final against Madhya Pradesh at the Brabourne Stadium. "Other support staff like [bowling coach] Ranadeb Bose and [fielding coach] Joydeep Mukherjee have made sure our team doesn't get distracted with all this things."
Tiwary said controversies were inevitable in Bengal, and so the players had to work around them. "Each and every season in Bengal, you know, there are a lot of unnecessary controversies which are not required," he said. "This time around we made sure each and every one is focused in their job.
"It's a kind of a challenge you can say. Along with batting and bowling in the middle this is also a challenge for us to just to handle things better off the field. It's important for a captain or any individual to be as calm as possible and think of the things which are related to cricket only rather than wasting energy on other things."
Tiwary said the senior players pulled their weight and that in turn rubbed on to the younger players. Ojha and Dinda have topped the bowling charts with 33 and 31 wickets respectively, but Tiwary was particularly pleased that the selection punts on youngsters like offspinner Aamir Gani, preferred to Lahiri, and seamer Mukesh Kumar had come good.
"It's important we [seniors] take extra responsibility to perform consistently and this season our performance in the Ranji Trophy we have been very consistent," he said. "Bowlers, especially Dinda and Ojha, have contributed a lot. Mukesh is a find for Bengal for the season. Our team looks very confident and balanced."
According to Tiwary, Sudip Chatterjee - the team's highest scorer with 712 runs - and opener Abhimanyu Easwaran had the potential to play Test matches for India. "[Sudip] is a determined youngster. He has that hunger to do well. It's that desperation [that has contributed to his success]," Tiwary said. "Along with him, Abhimanyu Easwaran is one of them. They have the potential [to play for India]. It's just that they have to be on the right track and work the way they are working."
Tiwary is carrying a niggle in his right calf but he felt playing through pain was a small price for the joy that a Ranji Trophy title offered. "It's a very important match for Bengal cricket, so you will have to [play through pain] at times," he said. "I don't think every cricketer is always 100% fit. It's important to get through the pain. I have been jogging a lot, touch wood nothing will happen.
"[A Ranji title] is due as well. This is the best period of Bengal cricket. The chances of getting the trophy are much higher. But we have to take it as another match and not put too much pressure."
Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, have had an intriguing run to the knockouts. Having started off in reasonably solid manner, they went through a phase where they won successive games against Baroda and Railways before losing the next two. Then, in a must-win game against Andhra, they grabbed seven points and scraped through to the quarter-finals by virtue of a better net run rate than Gujarat. This was welcome respite for a side that had missed out a knockout berth by a whisker last season.
"Qualifying for the knockouts was our first aim when we started off," Madhya Pradesh captain Devendra Bundela said. "Our first two games didn't go well but we made a good comeback. Of course there was the disappointment of last year so we put in more effort and concentrated harder this time. We have also had the same group of players over the last three-four years, so there is good bonding. We will play with three medium pacers and two spinners tomorrow."
Both captains were united in their assessment that the Brabourne pitch had decent grass cover and would offer assistance to the seamers early on before going on to become a good batting surface.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo