It was the contrarian's dream and the punter's nightmare. Baroda and Railways contesting the final of the Ranji Trophy. In the 66 year history of Indian cricket's premier first class competition, Baroda has won five times and been runners up on two other occasions. While Railways have played the role of bridesmaid twice, they have never gotten any further. Compare this with the 'winningest' teams in Ranji Trophy history, Mumbai and Karnataka. While Mumbai emerge clear leaders, having risen to the top spot on 34 occasions. Karnataka, winning on six occasions comes in second.
On the merit of this season's form, Punjab were one team tipped for high honours. Coming in to the semifinals having won 7 out of 7 games outright, with six of those victories coming by the huge margin of an innings, Punjab were the team to beat. No other team that completed the semifinal line-up, Baroda, Railways and Orissa could boast of a record like Punjab. Alas, the things that you achieve in the league phase are left behind once the knock out stage begins. A Punjab side minus the services of Sarandeep Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Dinesh Mongia and Yuvraj Singh went down by five wickets to Railways, playing with their tails up. Perhaps a full strength Punjab team would have posed a more stiff challenge? Indeed, if Punjab had gone through to the final, perhaps Baroda would not have had it so easy?
At the other end of the semifinal lineup, Baroda played one of the lesser teams in the Ranji Trophy. In the last two years or so, Orissa have begun to make a name for themselves. Before the upswing they were the kind of team that others relished playing against. This time around, Baroda went through by virtue of first innings lead on the back of a big knock of 181 from Nayan Mongia.
Baroda had what you would call a charmed season. The team never performed exceedingly well and yet, seemed to go through the rounds without a hitch. Have a look at the venues Baroda played at from the knock-out stage onwards:
Pre-Quarter Final 5: Baroda v Bengal at Baroda
Quarter Final 3: Baroda v Tamil Nadu at Baroda
Semi Final 2: Baroda v Orissa at Baroda
Final: Baroda v Railways at Baroda
Now when people say that teams should be professional enough to play away games and win they are absolutely right. However, to say that playing four crucial matches at home does not give a team an advantage would be naive.
Coming to the final day of the big match the Ranji final. Railways were 91/4 chasing 223 for victory. This left the visiting side 142 runs to score, with six wickets in hand to secure their maiden Ranji Trophy victory. Yere Goud and Sudhir Wankhede, both recognised batsmen, with Shreyas Khanolkar and Santosh Sahu still to come, began the proceedings for Railways. In just the third over of the day, a quick one from Zaheer Khan sneaked through the gate of a driving Goud. A loud shout for caught behind was upheld by umpire Jasbir Singh and the rot had begun. Television replays suggested that the ball brushed the pad, missing the bat altogether. Khanolkar was the next to go, given out leg before wicket to a ball from left arm speedster Zaheer Khan. Bowling from over the wicket, Zaheer Khan rapped the pads of Khanolkar, with the ball slanting well across the right hander. Up went the finger once more.
Three decisions followed, with only one being a clear cut dismissal.
At the end of the day, Railways had lost by the narrow margin of 21 runs and were a very angry lot. Murali Kartik was demonstrative on the field when given out while others were a bit more restrained. The manager of the team, Kamlesh Gupta went to the extent of protesting to the match observer Rakesh Shukla even as the game was in progress. However, there is no provision for the match observer to intervene while a match is in progress and the matter was laid to rest.
The official complaint is still on the record. Nothing has happened of it. In all likelihood, nothing ever will.
Baroda are the Ranji champions for the year 2000-01. One has to say though, it is without the usual fanfare and without the usual kudos. The Ranji Trophy triumph is still a major achievement. No one can take anything away from Baroda on that count. However, the manner in which the Trophy was lifted makes it glint a little less bright as the sun sets on the 2000-01 Indian domestic season.