Bengal's chance to cause an upset
Over the next four days, the merits of the BCCI technical committee's decision to let the two best Plate League teams play the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals alongside the six best Super League teams will be put to the test. The Chinnaswamy Stadium will be witness to one such match, between Tamil Nadu, who led their Super League group comprehensively, and Bengal, who fought their way up from the Plate League.
On the face of it the provision to have Plate League teams play the quarterfinals seems silly. It means the best six teams and the teams ranked 14th and 15th are playing for the big prize. The middle-ranked teams will be justified if they feel hard done by.
However, there is another way of looking at it. "It [the new format] is good because there's every chance that a good cricketing team might have slipped down to Plate," Tamil Nadu coach WV Raman said. "It has happened with Karnataka before, and now with Bengal. Once that happens it denies you things for two years. If a good side has gone down due to whatever reasons, there is a fantastic chance for them to come back immediately."
Bengal know they deserve that chance. Last year they slipped to the Plate League after being finalists in the previous two seasons. The defections to the ICL played their part too. However, they have come storming back into the Super League, riding on two innings victories and one by nine wickets. Achieving the promotion was no mean feat for there was pressure to win every match in the league stage. The promotion secured, there was a sense of relief in the Bengal camp. "Perhaps we had more pressure before to win every game, in order to be promoted," Laxmi Ratan Shukla, the Bengal captain, said. "Hopefully there will be less pressure this time."
If Shukla and Bengal's other batsmen can make significant contributions on a good batting track, some of that pressure will be released. None of their batsmen has crossed the 500-run mark after six matches: Wriddhiman Saha has been the most prolific with 428 runs at 53.50. Manoj Tiwary and Shukla will wish to set an average season right after averaging 38.5 and 29.7 so far. What has worked for them is the form of Ashok Dinda and Ranadeb Bose, who have taken 61 wickets between them, and are at Nos 3 and 4 on the wicket-takers' list.
Tamil Nadu, though, don't have any batting worries. The problem of riches could force them to bench Arun Karthik, who scored a century on debut this season and is averaging 57.33, to accommodate M Vijay, who was away on India duty. Not one of their five specialist batsmen averages below 50, and the two part-timers - R Ashwin and Suresh Kumar - average in the mid-40s.
The batting transformation has caused the turnaround for Tamil Nadu after years in the wilderness. "If a side has to do well in Ranji Trophy, it has to put runs on the board," Raman said. "Whenever the runs have been put on the board, we have been there or thereabouts. If not titles, at least semis of finals. That's what has been harped on in the last two or three years. Plus the wickets in the latter part of the seasons are usually batsmen-friendly, so it's all the more important to score heavily."
Not surprisingly, they have topped their group and got an easy quarter-final as a result. Raman expected to "put it across" Bengal. The flat pitch will work in their batsmen's favour too: Karnataka's 511 in the first innings was bettered by UP in the last game here. One of the bowlers here, who has been following the matches, joked the teams should be allowed to use a bowling machine in the matches.
But it is knockout time, and a mistake could prove decisive. To have such matches played over four days defies logic. A knockout comes from the most comprehensive of blows, but usually there isn't enough time in four days to land such punches. "I would have preferred these knockout games to be played over five days," Raman said. "It doesn't give you a comeback chance in a four-day situation. Five days would mean better competition, and obviously these players are being groomed to play top-level cricket."
From here on, the teams know that each mistake they make could be their last. And therein lies the underdog's chance, Bengal's in this case.
Tamil Nadu: Dinesh Karthik (capt & wk), M Vijay, A Mukund, S Badrinath, S Vidyut, S Suresh Kumar, R Ashwin, C Suresh, L Balaji, C Ganapathy, Yo Mahesh, P Amarnath.
Bengal: Lakshmi Ratan Shukla (capt), Rohan Banerjee, Manoj Tiwary, Wriddhiman Saha, Arindam Das, Avik Chowdhury, Ashok Dinda, Ritam Kundu, Sourav Sarkar, Didyendu Chakrabarty, Randeb Bose, Iresh Saxena, Shreevats Goswami, Avik Mallick.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo