Test of character for Bengal in Ranji final against Unadkat led-Saurashtra
Thirty-three years after their last Ranji Trophy win, Bengal once again square off in a final at Eden Gardens. Saurashtra look for their second title in three seasons.
Manoj Tiwary turned around, slowly breaking into a smile. Only one person could call him that at Eden Gardens. With a beaming smile, Jaydev Unadkat walked up to West Bengal’s minister of sports and youth affairs, shook hands and posed for photos before heading to the Saurashtra net.
Unadkat and Tiwary go back a long way, right from their Kolkata Knight Riders days in 2010. From sharing rooms to playing PlayStation, they share many memories. “We built a relationship from there,” Tiwary said. “At the end of the day you have to be friends off the field. But from tomorrow we will be ruthless. When we are out there on the field, we don't know who Jaydev or any other player is.”
Bengal play Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy final. Three years ago, the venue was Rajkot. This time, it’s at Eden Gardens. Apart from immediately underlining the sort of consistency very few sides display nowadays, the final is a reminder of how far both teams have come from being worthy opponents to title contenders.
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“We had a great history in the past but that was long back,” said Unadkat. “The roots were there. The team obviously didn't do well in five decades or so but there were signs of a good team when I started playing. Puji (Cheteshwar Pujara), (Ravindra) Jadeja were there. We had the potential but not that extra bit. It was up to us seniors to create the path, to express ourselves without the fear of failure.”
Bengal won their first Ranji Trophy title in 1938-39. Fifty-one years later, they won it again at Eden Gardens, against Delhi in a final where a 17-year-old Sourav Ganguly was picked ahead of older brother Snehasish. Bengal have reached three more finals since but never won. Life has come full circle for those players, most of them coaches and administrators now, as Bengal once again play a Ranji Trophy final at home.
Not just them, the sense of déjà vu is almost unmistakable at every corridor of the club house. Four blocks of Eden will be kept open for the general public. The entrance has been decked up with flowers, the manual scoreboard has got a fresh coat of paint and even the canteen is ready to offer heavy discounts. International matches are marquee events here but a Ranji final featuring Bengal comes once in a lifetime. “It means a lot, it means everything,” said Tiwary. “I've never played a Ranji final at home. It still hasn’t sunk in yet.”
The best thing that Bengal have done is not let the occasion get to them. Coming through the gates of Eden in flip-flops or sneakers for training and matches is something all Bengal players — at any age-group — are used through their playing life. Tiwary doesn’t want them to feel any different this time.
“Initially I thought let’s check into a hotel as a team. But then I felt let's not disturb the routine, let everyone come from home. And be in a happy frame of mind,” he said. “I’m not even going that far and thinking what happened in 1989-90. We are not thinking about comparing or even discussing it.”
Thrice has Tiwary come second-best in a Ranji Trophy final. Having already announced this could be his last season if Bengal lift the title, Tiwary knows never again will the stars align for such a momentous end to the career of Bengal’s best batter and leader since Sourav Ganguly.
But this final will be a true test of Bengal’s character, considering the steel Saurashtra showed in overhauling Karnataka’s first-innings score of 407 in their backyard. That they have been dismissed for not less than 303 since the quarter-finals but Bengal too have conceded 300-plus just once this season, against Himachal while defending 472.
Saurashtra have better batting, Bengal have better bowling. If Rajkot was a flat, placid track in 2020, Eden’s pitch looks garden fresh. With the final set to feature the complete version of the Decision Review System (DRS), it’s going to be a close affair. The current bowling core, comprising Akash Deep, Mukesh Kumar, Ishan Porel and Shahbaz Ahmed is possibly the best Bengal ever had in the last decade.
Saurashtra, on the other hand, have two consistent left-arm seamers in Chetan Sakariya and Unadkat, who was released by the India Test side for this final. Bengal are ready though. “From Day 1 we are carrying two left-arm pacers. All bases are covered preparation wise,” said Tiwary, who is 167 runs shy of a personal milestone of 10,000 first-class runs.
Playing down the importance of toss in an early morning (9am) start, Unadkat however feels scoring could still be difficult. “Challenges are different but same for both sides,” he said. If Saurashtra win, this will be their second title in three seasons and an apt tribute to Cheteshwar Pujara, who is playing his 100th Test in Delhi. “I was there when he made his Test debut, I was a part of this team as well,” said Unadkat. “There can't be a better way to give him a tribute.”
For Bengal, it’s only about claiming back long due respect. “We have faced a lot of criticism that Bengal cricket isn’t coming up,” said Tiwary. “But we are making progress. This is a result of our perseverance. It's a golden opportunity for us to win that dream title.”