Ranji Trophy Super League semi-finals, 2007-08 December 30, 2007

Collision course

Cricinfo staff

Mixing up with the big boys: Who would have expected Saurashtra to make it to the semi-finals? © Cricinfo Ltd

A Ranji Trophy is always hard to predict, what with so many teams playing in a league format. To make it even more unpredictable was the loss of players to the Indian Cricket League. Living up to the expectations and in truly unpredictable style, the Ranji Trophy 2007-08 went right down to the last round with as many as 10 teams still alive in the competition.

Halfway through the league matches, nobody had expected two of the four teams that eventually reached the semi-finals to get there: Uttar Pradesh were hopeless after a bright start, Saurashtra didn't just have the firepower.

And although Delhi and Baroda made it comfortably in the end, they were far from being overwhelming favourites at the start of the season. Delhi were struggling to win matches last season with much the same personnel and were universally regarded as a muddle house of dirty politicking and infighting.

Baroda, semi-finalists for the last two years, are the only team that was expected here, but as the relegation of Bengal - runners-up in the previous two seasons - shows, nothing can be taken for granted in the Ranji Trophy.

UP: the strife lovers

They fought to avoid relegation during their title defence last season, and midway through this season they were candidates again for demotion to the Plate League. With eight points to their credit and two matches to go, they couldn't have chosen a better time to peak. There has been an uncanny similarity in their late-season rise to the 2005-06 season when they won the Ranji Trophy - they had four points from four matches then when Mohammad Kaif joined the team. Throughout the season they have sat on extremes, huge wins in three matches and listless shows in the other three.

Best batsmen
Kaif, with 562 runs, and Suresh Raina, with 555, have been the major run-getters, and have carried an inexperienced and an inconsistent batting line-up, which has always been a major concern for them. Piyush Chawla and Praveen Kumar have provided useful runs down the order, making them adequate allrounders at the domestic level.

Best bowlers
Their bowling is a much more potent aspect of their game. Sudeep Tyagi, who has played all their games, has carried on from a dream debut where he took 10 wickets against Orissa. Tyagi and Chawla were their main bowlers for the earlier half of the season, while Praveen Kumar and left-arm spinner Praveen Gupta have added extra sting in the latter half. The Praveens have been a major factor in their last two outright wins.

Best match
The moment of truth, their last chance, the match against Bengal in the penultimate round. They needed to win their last two matches to have any chance of progressing and that's exactly what they did, gaining a bonus point in one of them as well. The match against Bengal was pretty close if not perfect: they shot Bengal out in two sessions, batted for nearly two days, and needed a bit more than two sessions to bowl Bengal out for a second time. All the bowlers and the batsmen, right till Praveen Kumar at No. 9, contributed.

Delhi: so far so good

Delhi had an anxious last two rounds with rain washing out their penultimate game, against Karnataka, allowing the other contenders in the group to catch up. Eventually they went through with an emphatic win over Tamil Nadu. In the initial half of the season, they let the opposition off the hook twice to give themselves some anxious moments. First they couldn't take the last two Saurashtra wickets in 48 overs and had to be content with a first-innings lead. Then, in Dharamsala, the batting imploded as they were bowled out for 75. Apart from those two glitches, their batsmen have done well and the bowlers have done enough to help them emerge leaders in Group A.

Batmen Inc.: Chopra and Gambhir have been the best opening combination in this season's Ranji Trophy © Cricinfo Ltd

Best batsmen
Aakash Chopra has been his stable best, Gautam Gambhir mercurial in the three matches he has played, and going into the semi-finals each one of their top five has made two centuries. The only batsman to have failed in the three matches he played is now in Australia with the Indian team.

Best bowlers
The earlier victories against Rajasthan and Mumbai were built not on the batting, but bowling and the main architect was debutant left-arm swing bowler Pradeep Sangwan, who has 24 wickets at 21.20 from six matches. The bonus for Delhi has been Rajat Bhatia's bowling which has been economical while collecting 20 wickets at a stellar average of 10.30. Bhatia is handy with the bat as well, as a century against Maharashtra shows, and provides the team much-required balance.

Best match
First morning of Ranji Trophy and Delhi are bowled out for 113 and a familiar story looks in store. The bowlers bring them back into the game by bowling Rajasthan out for 85 and the batsmen put up a much-improved show in the second innings to put the matter beyond Rajasthan. That was essentially the turning point for them and the main difference between another lukewarm season and one where they are now the favourites to go all the way.

Baroda: cruising along

Baroda have had a smooth run leading up the semi-finals. The campaign was off to a great start with two wins in three games: they began with a crushing win against Bengal before beating Uttar Pradesh by 48 runs. Coached by the astute Paras Mhambrey, it has been an all-round display from the batsmen and the bowlers. The only concern is they might have peaked too early and the bowling is definitely feeling the absence of Irfan Pathan. The last two games have not gone according to plan. They followed-on - but hung on to a draw - against Andhra and gave away a first-innings lead to Orissa, but the batsmen bailed out them again in the second innings.

Best batsmen
Rakesh Solanki and Connor Williams, the captain, have each amassed over 500 runs in this season and have found support from the likes of Yusuf Pathan, Pinal Shah and Azharuddin Bilakhia. Shatrunjay Gaekwad too has come on nicely with 206 runs from three games. Satyajit Parab, the opener, has had an off-and-on season, but Williams has ensured that they get off to a good start more often than not. Yusuf has attacked with vigour in the middle order to make full use of the starts.

Best bowlers
It's the spinners who have stolen the show. Yusuf has been the leader, claiming 25 wickets with his offspin, while the left-arm spinner Rajesh Pawar has bagged 20. The pair has even opened the bowling on occasions. In the absence of Irfan Pathan, Sumit Singh, with 15 wickets, has been the lone seamer who has pulled some weight.

Best match
It has to be their third game of the season when they clinched a close game against UP. Parab top scored with 77 as they posted 334 before Yusuf combined with Irfan to bowl out UP for 209. But the batting collapsed in the second, giving UP a target of 275. It was Yusuf again who led the charge, supported this time by Pawar, as Baroda succeeding in bowling UP out for 225.

Saurashtra: the bolt from the blue

Last season, they lived with the fear of relegation. Things changed with the Moin-ud-Dowlah tournament, just prior to the Ranji campaign, where they beat Bengal. Self-belief and confidence kicked in and the team started to gel as a unit. With three outright wins and a No. 2 position in the group, they have surprised everyone by entering the final four. It is even more creditable as they have played away from home all season. They are a bunch of amateurs enjoying the journey towards professionalism. Can they continue their dream run?

Best batsmen
Cheteshwara Pujara is the undoubted star with 796 runs, highest by any batsman this season, while Shitanshu Kotak has been the backbone of the team, scripting some typically gritty knocks that have worn down the opposition. Pujara, a natural opener, has been batting down to strengthen the middle order but with the aggressive Ravindra Jadeja, who hit 87 against Mumbai, slated to miss the semis, there is extra responsibility on the shoulders of Pujara and Kotak.

Best bowlers
Don't look further than Sandeep Jobanputra. The 25-year-old left-hand seamer has matured this season and has been their bowling spearhead. With the guidance of the coach Debu Mitra, a big influence over the team, he has been working on swinging it back in to the right-hand batsmen. Thirty-two wickets show that the hard work is paying off. The left-arm spinner Rakesh Dhurv, with 18 wickets, leads the spin department. His average has been under 25 in the last three seasons and the wickets tally has gone up steadily. Jadeja's absence could hit them again, but offspinner Kamlesh Makvana and Sandeep Maniar, a seamer with 13 wickets this season, will provide able support to Jobanputra.

Best match
If the game against Bengal gave them confidence, the fear of playing in the Elite group disappeared after a creditable draw against Delhi in the first Ranji game. Jobanputra grabbed a five-for, Kotak compiled a 203-ball 77 in the first innings and Pujara hit an unbeaten 148 in the second to stave off defeat. The last two wickets frustrated Delhi for more than 48 overs on the last day to earn that one point, which in the end proved crucial too. But more than that it brought them the self-confidence that they could come out victorious from tight situations.