After Bengal lost the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy final via a small first-innings deficit in a drawn match, there was a sense in the corridors of Bengal cricket, that nothing less than the trophy would do justice to the nearly three decades that have passed since their last win in 1990.
After a cancelled 2020-21 season due to the pandemic, they topped their group in pursuit of the title in 2021-22, roaring into the semis without much trouble. But standing in their way were Madhya Pradesh, and the eventual champions steamrolled their way into the final to eventually clinch the trophy.
This season seems to be eerily similar. Bengal finished first in their group and then secured a comfortable nine-wicket win over Jharkhand. Once again, MP are in their way, and this time the defending champions have home advantage too. That makes their semi-final in Indore their toughest challenge yet, and to overcome that, Bengal will need Akash Deep, their highest wicket-taker of the season, to repeat his Player-of-the-Match performance from the quarter-final.
Akash is part of a three-pronged pace attack that has been Bengal's bowling backbone for the past three seasons, along with Mukesh Kumar and Ishan Porel. The trio, having joined the Bengal set up at different periods of Bengal's 'Vision 2020', have played most of their first-class cricket together, but Mukesh was always the leader.
However, this season was different. With Mukesh part of India squads on occasion and regularly featuring for India A now, the team's senior bowler played only two group-stage games and the quarter-final. Akash became the lead bowler of the team in his senior's absence, and blossomed as the new lead, taking 31 wickets in eight matches at 21.96. It was as if Mukesh was not missed at all.
"When Mukesh isn't in the team with us, then there's extra pressure on me," Akash told ESPNcricinfo before the semi-final. "When the three of us play together, we all feel that we can take wickets altogether anytime at any point of the game. When one of us is missing, there's more pressure. The three of us have been playing cricket together through our career."
Akash hails from Sasaram in Bihar, and moved to Bengal with the desire to become a cricketer despite his father's early hesitation. His struggles with personal loss - first of his father and then his brother in short time - is well documented, with him needing at least three years to pick the pieces up from the tragedy and resume his journey in becoming a state-level cricketer. In 2019, he was among the many bowlers in Bengal's U-23 team. Four years later, he is their hope as the side's most in-form bowler.
Akash doesn't need a lot of motivation to deliver these performances. He was part of that final that Bengal lost too, and despite being a fairly young member of an experienced squad, is aware how much a title would mean to the group.
It starts off from Manoj Tiwary, their captain, who has suggested this could be his final year of cricket, and Bengal cricket as a whole has been dreaming of a Ranji title to give Tiwary a fitting farewell after three failed attempts in finals. Laxmi Shukla and Shib Paul, Bengal's head coach and bowling coach respectively, along with Tiwary had two chances in the mid 2000s to clinch the title but lost in the final. This seems to be the final chance for that golden generation to taste success.
"Winning the Ranji Trophy is a dream for every cricketer," Akash said. "There are India cricketers who are yet to even reach a Ranji final. So it is also my dream to contribute towards the win for a team that has given me so much. When you lose in a final, a tinge of regret remains."
As a right-arm seam bowler, Akash bowls from wide of the crease and uses the angle coming into the right-hander's body or away from the left-hander's bat to trouble his opponents. When he isn't contributing with the ball, he contributes useful runs as a No. 8, with a high score of 41 this season. Those runs have twice helped Bengal win games outright despite conceding first-innings deficits in the group stage.
"I was injured at the start of the season, I did not play the Vijay Hazare Trophy also," Akash said. "I wasn't 100% fit at the start of the Ranji season, but with Mukesh also not there, I was needed in the XI. So I came to play directly from rehab without any practice. It took a short time for me to get my rhythm, but I got better as the season went along.
"I have been focusing on my batting because I can bat well. From the number in bat in, if I score 35 or 40 then not only will it help the team but will also help the person batting with me. Whichever team has batters getting 25-30 runs late, then that team is very hard to beat, even in Tests."
With a strong MP team looking to make it two finals in a row, their captain Rajat Patidar back after a few weeks away for national duty and Avesh Khan in red-hot form, Bengal do not start Wednesday's semi-final as favourites. But as veteran coach Chandrakant Pandit once said, the pressure of defending one's title is more than winning it the first time. Bengal will be looking to take advantage of that undue pressure on MP, and for them to succeed, Tiwary will need Akash to come good.