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Young stars brighten Bengal's gloom

Mumbai ended a tumultuous season - which began three straight defeats, followed by five outright wins on the trot - by reclaiming the Ranji Trophy. No. 37 is safely in the bag and a team still in the works received a timely boost in the final in the shape of Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar and Wasim Jaffer, who tilted the balance heavily in Mumbai's favour at the Wankhede.

Yet though Mumbai won the Ranji Trophy, a comparison of the two teams' progress through the season suggests that Bengal, though they faced the heartbreak of losing a second straight final, ended the season with far more gains.

While Mumbai's resurgence has been forged through a varied cast - Vinayak Samant made vital runs, Hiken Shah scored his maiden century, Nilesh Kulkarni wheeled away as he has done for seemingly countless years - Bengal came to the final on the back of a solid season of consistent performances. They have at least three players who should be knocking on the national selectors' doors in the near future.

That's what Paras Mhambrey, the coach of the Bengal team, alluded to immediately after losing the final. "We can take a lot from the way we have played all season. There are individual performances to be proud of. We're a young side in a development stage." What he did not say was that Bengal had played most of their games without Ganguly and missed Shib Sankar Paul, their tall seam bowler, who might have made a difference in the final.

But two of Bengal's consistent performers did stamp their mark on the final. Ranadeb Bose, very unlucky not to make the cut for the 30 probables to the World Cup, once again put in a sterling performance in the final, keeping up the intensity over long spells to take his season's tally to an astonishing 57 wickets. Abhishek Jhunjhunwala followed up his big knocks in the earlier rounds to show that there was much batting promise in domestic cricket, but the biggest impact was made by Manoj Tiwary.

That he had piled on 660 runs before the final was noteworthy but not, in isolation, enough confirmation that he could cut it at a higher level. There are five other batsmen who have made 550-plus runs in the Super League, of which the top-scorer, Robin Uthappa, has already donned India colours. But for Tiwary to bat with such attitude and poise against an attack that included Zaheer and Agarkar, backed up by the huge presence of Tendulkar on the field, is proof that he has it in him to absorb the pressure and bat freely, irrespective of the situation.

It's fair to assume that anyone who scores 500 or so runs in a first-class season can obviously handle a bat. But when a 21-year-old Tiwary can stand up to a spell of quality bowling, under pressure, and still express himself, and not merely survive, you know he has something in him that not everyone does.

This is not a call to fast-track Tiwari into India colours. Rather, it underscores the need for India's big stars to play as much domestic cricket as they possibly can. For only when they do so does the intensity rise to something approximating international cricket. Not just among the fans and the media, the cricket board officials and the man on the street but, critically, among the contestants - out on the field, it's a whole new ball game.

Tiwari's batting was an affirmation that the whole process of domestic cricket - with all its obvious flaws and attendant shortcomings - is doing something right. If every season can throw up one Tiwary, an Uthappa, a Bose or a Rohit Sharma, then something, somewhere is working. And that we will only know, if the big names come to the party, and test the strength of those aspiring to replace them.