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Feature

Ranji knockouts: Mumbai are doing Mumbai things again, Karnataka in rebuilding mode

Bengal, meanwhile, have ticked a lot of boxes, and Madhya Pradesh have an excellent array of up-and-coming players

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
03-Jun-2022
Shahbaz Ahmed has already played a key role in Bengal's run to the quarter-finals  •  PTI

Shahbaz Ahmed has already played a key role in Bengal's run to the quarter-finals  •  PTI

After a two-month break to accommodate the IPL, the Ranji Trophy returns to complete BCCI's 2021-22 senior men's domestic season, with the knockouts being played across Bengaluru from June 6.
In an ideal world, this would be the off-season for hundreds of cricketers across the country. But the threat of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 forced the BCCI to conduct a truncated version of the first-class tournament in two phases - the group phase in February-March, followed by the knockouts now. Eight teams have come through the qualifying phase, with each team playing a maximum of three league matches as opposed to the usual eight or nine in a regular season.
Here, in the first part of our curtain raiser for the knockouts, we look at Bengal, Karnataka, Mumbai and Madhya Pradesh's route to the quarter-finals. You can read the second part of the preview here.

Bengal

The only team to win all three games in their group, Bengal will start favourites against Jharkhand. They have been in Bengaluru for more than a week already, and have played two warm-up games against a Karnataka XI on surfaces tailored to challenge them, according to senior batter Manoj Tiwary. Clearly, they are looking to complete some unfinished business, having lost to Saurashtra in the 2019-20 final.
Abhimanyu Easwaran, their captain, is richer from his experiences with the Indian team over the past couple of years and young allrounder Shahbaz Ahmed is a more consistent version of his former self. Their pace battery of Ishan Porel, Mukesh Kumar and Akash Deep is among the most exciting in the country. And Wriddhiman Saha's absence following differences with the Cricket Association of Bengal has opened the door for young Abishek Porel, who was part of India's Under-19 World Cup-winning squad earlier this year.
The key moment
That Bengal have reached here is down in no small measure to some Shahbaz magic against Baroda, who Bengal beat in their opening game despite being shot out for 88 on a damp surface in the first innings in Cuttack. After Bengal conceded a 93-run lead, Baroda set them 349 to win in the fourth innings. At 176 for 5, a spot in the quarter-finals looked distant, but Shahbaz (71*) and Abishek (53*) put up an unbroken 108-run stand to take them home. It was the sixth-highest chase in Ranji history and the highest ever for Bengal.

Karnataka

Karnataka are on rebuild mode, both with their bowling and their batting. The retirements of R Vinay Kumar and Abhimanyu Mithun in quick succession have left them thinner on experience and lighter by 842 first-class wickets. With Prasidh Krishna missing the quarter-final because of national duty, the seam attack will be spearheaded by Ronit More, who has 31 matches and 97 wickets to his name. The batting is bolstered by Mayank Agarwal's return. He will be looking to get back among the runs after a lean IPL and also channel the hurt of being left out of India's squad for the Edgbaston Test in England. He will have big names in the top order for help: Devdutt Padikkal, Karun Nair and Manish Pandey are all part of the mix.
The key moment
Railways are the only team that scored a 400-plus total against their inexperienced attack. It was a game that could have had massive significance in terms of Karnataka's qualification had the predicted rains owing to cyclones in Chennai hampered their final league fixture against Puducherry. As it turned out, Puducherry folded quickly and Karnataka wrapped up a bonus-point win to top the group and qualify comfortably. Nair's return to form with a 175 against Jammu and Kashmir, his first Ranji century since the 2017-18 semi-final, was particularly noteworthy. It came at a time when there were murmurs about his place in the XI.

Madhya Pradesh

Coached by ex-Mumbai and India wicketkeeper Chandrakant Pandit, who masterminded two back-to-back Ranji titles for Vidarbha between 2017 and 2019, Madhya Pradesh are among the most improved teams in the domestic circuit. The proof of that is that several of their players are in the national frame. Venkatesh Iyer and Avesh Khan have graduated to the Indian team through consistent performances, while batter Rajat Patidar and Kumar Kartikeya Singh, the left-arm spinner, are coming off breakout IPL seasons. But that Madhya Pradesh have made it this far is only because of a better quotient than Kerala after they were tied on points at the end of the group phase. Both sides had two wins and a draw in three matches.
The key moment
Madhya Pradesh and Kerala had 13 points going into their final fixture, against each other. A first-innings lead would have clinched the deal for either side. Madhya Pradesh found a new hero in Yash Dubey, the opener, who made a career-best 289. His 277-run partnership with Patidar, who made 142, set up a massive first-innings total for them. And when time as called on the final day of a rain-affected game, Kerala's first innings was incomplete at 432 for 9, which gave both teams one point and Madhya Pradesh progressed based on a better quotient.

Mumbai

Mumbai just about managed to squeeze into the knockouts, Royal Challengers Bangalore style. Just winning their final fixture outright was no guarantee. They also needed Saurashtra to not win with a bonus point, against Goa, and the stars aligned. That said, there were shades of the never-give-up Mumbai of old in their approach. Like in the game against Goa, where they were shot out for 163 in the first innings but still managed to win by 119 runs thanks to left-arm spinner Shams Mulani's 11-wicket match haul. In the last game, against Odisha, Mulani picked up seven wickets, including a five-for, and Mumbai sealed their quarter-final berth. With 29 scalps in three matches, Mulani also leads the overall wicket-takers' chart at the moment.
The key moment
Having conceded a 164-run lead against Goa, they were on the brink at 208 for 7 in the second innings, effectively 44 for 7. Prithvi Shaw, Ajinkya Rahane, Sarfaraz Khan and Aditya Tare were all dismissed. Over the next 40 overs, Tanush Kotian, the No. 9, batted with the lower order to make a career-best 98 to frustrate Goa and set up a 232-run target that gave their bowlers a total to defend on the final day. Mumbai went on to win and turn their campaign around in style.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo