Feature

Bengal look to end Ranji jinx and kick off next era in one go at Eden Gardens

They are far from perfect, but have put together a solid body of work over the past few seasons

Himanshu Agrawal
15-Feb-2023
Laxmi Ratan Shukla and Manoj Tiwary, the Bengal brains trust  •  Cricket Association of Bengal

Laxmi Ratan Shukla and Manoj Tiwary, the Bengal brains trust  •  Cricket Association of Bengal

Bengal have a shot at Ranji Trophy glory nearly 34 years after they last won it, and have in their ranks two players - Manoj Tiwary and Anustup Majumdar - who might be getting a shot at the biggest prize in Indian domestic cricket for the last time.
For a while now, the two have been the team's go-to men, not just as senior players but also as friends and mentors to the younger players trying to make a name for themselves. Among them, Abhimanyu Easwaran is a star in the line-up, and is even at the doorstep of the national team. There is a core of regular first-XI players. While others, like Sudip Kumar Gharami, Karan Lal, Abishek Porel, Kazi Saifi and Koushik Ghosh are working their way up. All playing their part in a period of transition for the team.
"I just want someone to grab that [second] opening slot and support Abhimanyu," Tiwary, the Bengal captain, told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the final against Saurashtra starting Thursday. "But, despite that, I believe that the reserve players in Bengal are good enough to be a part of the XI."

Anustup Majumdar is 'the backbone of the side'

Bengal have tried as many as six opening pairs this season with Abhimanyu, after returning from India A duty, the only constant. Majumdar, as he did during their inspired run to the final in 2019-20, has been the glue that has held the batting together. He's the team's crisis man who has made "tough runs" time and again, like he did in the semi-final last week, in making 120 and 80 to oust defending champions Madhya Pradesh.
"People don't talk about Anustup, what a hero he is," Arun Lal, former coach and member of the last Ranji-winning side, said. "He is the backbone of the side. I get worried when he gets out."
Arun's worries stem from the fact that the younger batters have often failed to make the most of their opportunities. But there's hope. Gharami, who debuted during the 2019-20 final, averages nearly 43 in first-class cricket across 28 innings with four hundreds. Three of those have come this season, including one in the semi-final.
"Sudip will be a sensation," Arun said. "He is young and hungry, and will be a big name in the next ten years."
Tiwary as also optimistic about Abishek Porel, the wicketkeeper, who has become a regular member of the side following the departure of Wriddhiman Saha and Shreevats Goswami to Tripura and Mizoram respectively. Last year, Abishek was part of India's Under-19 World Cup-winning squad. While the transition to first-class cricket hasn't been the smoothest for him, there has been plenty of promise with both bat and gloves.
"Abishek is a very aggressive player," Tiwary said. "And look at some of his catches this season; they show the hard work he has put in."

Fast bowlers are making the difference for Bengal

Since Ashok Dinda's departure following a tiff with the coaching staff in 2019-20, Bengal have relied on a youngish pace attack to carry them forward. And each of them, Mukesh Kumar, Ishan Porel and Akash Deep, have delivered stunning returns, with plenty of support from spin-bowling allrounder Shahbaz Ahmed.
Across the last three Ranji seasons, the 258 wickets the Bengal quicks have picked up is the best for any team. This Ranji season, the 348 for 4 Himachal Pradesh scored against them in a drawn game is the most they have conceded in an innings. Uttarakhand's 272, in another draw, is the second highest.
These performances have resulted in a national call-up for Mukesh, while Akash Deep and Ishan Porel have been knocking on the doors of India A. Shahbaz, meanwhile, made his India debut in the shorter formats late last year.
"Currently they are the best bowling side in the country by far," Arun Lal said. "There's no respite [against them]. Akash has been a revelation: he won't bowl every ball at 140kph, but his line and length stands out."
This season, Akash Deep has picked up 37 wickets at 20, including three five-wicket innings hauls and a ten-wicket match haul. That consists of a 4 for 62 in the quarter-final, and 5 for 42 in the semi-final. Mukesh has pocketed 18 wickets in only four games, while Ishan Porel, too, has had his moments, beginning with a five-for against Uttar Pradesh.
Shahbaz's contribution hasn't been limited to just the ball. While his 20 wickets have cost only 27.80 apiece, he has scored 339 runs at 48, including 81 in the quarter-final. Since the 2019-20 season, Shahbaz is one of only two players to have scored at least 1000 runs and taken 50 wickets in the Ranji Trophy.
"We've got a champion in Shahbaz," Arun Lal said. "He provides solid depth from No. 6 or 7. The era has changed. Now you need an allrounder to get you a hundred. That is where the difference really arrives."
In a further positive for Bengal, the oldest of the quartet of bowlers are Mukesh and Shahbaz, both 29. Safe to say then that Bengal's bowling is in great hands at least in the medium term.

'Everybody will have to chase Bengal cricket'

Two months back, Tiwary had hinted that this season could be his last. With Abhimanyu away on national duty, he accepted captaincy again and has nurtured a young group of players, placing a lot of emphasis on team spirit and camaraderie, which hasn't been Bengal's strongest suit in the past. Having spent considerable time with them in a high-performance environment, Tiwary liked what he's seen and was optimistic of the future.
"The youngsters have established themselves," he said. "The pace bowlers have been so good that with all due respect to Dinda, I haven't really missed him as captain. Obviously Wriddhi was experienced and consistent, but Abishek has shown promise Today's youngsters represent India A quite often, and also get to play in the IPL. hat has helped them develop outstanding work ethic. Those things give you dividends."
Come Thursday, all of them will take the field with one common dream: to recreate there magic of 1989-90. Even if that doesn't happen, Arun Lal suggested that it was only a matter of time. "In the next five years, this mature group of younger players will help Bengal win the Ranji at least twice," he predicted. "Everybody will have to chase Bengal cricket."

Himanshu Agrawal is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo