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Feature

Fierce contest awaits evenly-matched Vidarbha and Madhya Pradesh

Vidarbha have the advantage of playing at home but MP are entering the contest unbeaten this season

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
01-Mar-2024
Karun Nair has led the way for Vidarbha this season  •  PTI

Karun Nair has led the way for Vidarbha this season  •  PTI

In 2017-18 and 2018-19, Chandrakant Pandit coached an unfancied Vidarbha to back-to-back Ranji Trophy titles. Five years later, as he targets his second title with Madhya Pradesh, having overseen their maiden triumph in 2021-22, guess whom he finds in the semi-final? His old side.
Saturday will be the 50th time MP and Vidarbha will be face-to-face in the Ranji Trophy. So far, MP have had the upper hand with 15 wins, six losses and 28 draws.
However, it would be foolish to draw any conclusion from that record, as the two teams have met only once in the last 15 years: in 2022-23. In that match in Indore, Rajat Patidar scored a hundred and Avesh Khan picked up 12 wickets to give MP a 205-run win.
MP will take confidence from that victory. Though this time they are without Patidar, who is part of the India squad for the England Test series, they will have the experience of Venkatesh Iyer, who missed the 2022 season due to a combination of injuries and India duty. Last month, Iyer told ESPNcricinfo that he has a "burning desire to do something special" and help the team lift the trophy.
Vidarbha, meanwhile, have the advantage of playing at home. Of four games they played in Nagpur this season, they won three and lost one. And while their coach Usman Ghani may not be the face of the side - unlike Pandit, he prefers to stay behind the scenes - he has a stellar coaching record in age-group cricket and will be keen to win his first Ranji title.
Both teams have reached here by topping their respective groups. Under the captaincy of bespectacled wicketkeeper-batter Akshay Wadkar, Vidarbha registered five wins, one loss and one draw in the league stage and then trounced Karnataka by 127 runs in the quarter-final.
Shubham Sharma's MP have been unbeaten till now. Of their seven group matches, they won four and drew three. Andhra gave them a scare in the quarter-final but they managed to eke out a four-run win.
The similarities between the two sides do not end there. Both MP and Vidarbha rely more on team effort than individual brilliance. It is as if they are wired differently from the domestic powerhouses such as Mumbai and Tamil Nadu who are coincidentally playing in the other semi-final.
This collective effort is best reflected in the runs chart for the season. Neither MP nor Vidarbha have a single batter in the top 15 but they have three each in the next 11.
Iyer is the highest run-getter for MP with a tally of 528 at an average of 52.80. In fact, he is the only one on either side to average 50 this season. He is closely followed by openers Himanshu Mantri (513 at 42.75) and Yash Dubey (510 at 36.42). In 11 innings they have opened together, Mantri and Dubey have shared three century stands and as many half-century stands. With 647 partnership runs, they are the most prolific pair in the tournament for any wicket.
For Vidarbha, their two professionals, Karun Nair and Dhruv Shorey, have led the way. Nair, who came from Karnataka, has 515 runs at 39.61, while Shorey, who played for Delhi till the last season, has 496 at 38.15. The young left-hander and white-ball captain Atharva Taide is third with 488 at 48.80.
Things are not too different on the bowling front either. MP's Kumar Kartikeya and Vidarbha's Aditya Sarwate, the two left-arm spinners, are the leading wicket-takers for their respective sides and they barely make the top 10. Their numbers, though, are much more impressive than the batters'.
Bowling a mix of fingerspin and wristspin with both new and old ball, Kartikeya has 38 wickets at an average of 19.00. Sarwate, who is more orthodox and more experienced, has 37 scalps at 15.97. He has been the Player of the Match three times in the tournament so far, including in the quarter-final where he picked up seven wickets apart from making useful contributions with the bat.
While Kartikeya will be backed by Avesh and Kulwant Khejroliya, Sarwate has the support of Umesh Yadav and Aditya Thakare.
So two evenly matched teams, almost mirroring each other with no clear favourites. There is little doubt that the Mumbai vs Tamil Nadu semi-final is the more high-profile one, but the contest will be equally fierce in Nagpur too.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo