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Watch Out For These Ranji Stars!

By NORMA ASTRID GODINHO
March 23, 2022 10:05 IST
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IMAGE: Jharkhand's Kumar Kushagra celebrates his century on day one of the Ranji Trophy match against Nagaland at the Eden Gardens, in Kolkata, March 12, 2022. Photograph: ANI

The Ranji Trophy -- India's premier domestic cricket competition -- has returned after a forced by pandemic two-year break.

While the BCCI has conducted other domestic tournaments -- the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy -- nothing quite beats the old-world charm of four-day first-class cricket. And just how have teams and players responded to the call of Ranji Trophy.

Runs have flown by the bucket load and wickets have fallen by the dozen.

This season's Ranji Trophy is not only special because of its return after a two-year interruption, but more so because a landmark 5,000th game in the history of the Ranji Trophy was played when Railways faced off against Jammu Kashmir on March 3, 2022 in Chennai.

At the end of the league stage that was three rounds each, seven teams qualified for the Ranji quarter-finals from the Elite groups, while Group H toppers Jharkhand's run-fest against Nagaland in the pre-quarters saw them book a place in the quarters and become the eighth team in the knock-outs.

Six of the teams that qualified for the quarters made it simply by the points system, save Madhya Pradesh who edged Kerala to qualify from Group A on the basis of quotient -- both teams were locked on 14 points after three rounds in the league stage. (Quotient is got by dividing the team's batting average by the bowling average. A superior quotient is always better for a team.)

It was batters who mostly lead their teams to victories and some into the knock-outs. While Mumbai trailblazer Sarfaraz Khan continues to find the big runs, Baba Indrajith's consistency wasn't enough for Tamil Nadu to make even the top two in Group H.

While the quarter-finals are set to kick-off post IPL 2022, Norma Astrid Godinho picks some of the players who shone brightly in the first half of the Ranji Trophy.

 

SARFARAZ KHAN

IMAGE: Mumbai's Sarfaraz Khan is the leading run-scorer in the Elite groups in Ranji Trophy 2022 with 551 runs from 4 innings at an average of 137.75. Photograph: PTI

So much has been written about this chubby Mumbai boy, but he never stops making us take notice.

If we go by the numbers, the proof is in the pudding. Sarfaraz has notched up runs by the dozen over the last few seasons in the domestic leagues and he is not ready to stop yet. It was as if this Ranji season was his calling, scoring crucial knocks at every stage.

In Mumbai's season-opening match against Saurashtra, he scored a double century, a massive 275, taking his team to a mammoth 544 for 7.

This knock came at a crucial stage when the former champions were in early trouble before Sarfaraz joined hands with Test veteran Ajinkya Rahane (129) to help the team fight back and put on a huge score and eventually bag three points by virtue of the first innings lead.

In the second game against Goa, Sarfaraz once again came to Mumbai's rescue with a well-made 63 even as they were shot out cheaply, Mumbai thus claiming the full six points as they beat Goa by 119 runs.

Sarfaraz continued to keep the momentum, scoring a century (165) against Odisha in the 3rd match, showing that he has got some real fire in that belly.

Sarfaraz is the leading run-scorer in the Elite group in Ranji Trophy 2022 with 551 runs from 4 innings at an average of 137.75.

Veteran Mumbai umpire Marcus Couto credits Sarfaraz for his work ethic. "He is always practicing his batting at Islam Gymkhana. Even during the COVID lockdown, because the gymkhana was shut, he would practice on the street while his father Naushad watched," says Couto.

"He has been playing for the last 7-8 years, but he has improved in the last five years as a player," adds Couto.

"In the last two years, he has changed his lifestyle in an attempt to become fit. He has doubled work on his fitness. Given his consistency in all forms of cricket, he should be picked in the Indian team within the next two years," predicts Couto, who expects other Mumbai players to rally around Sarfaraz if the team has to lift the Ranji Trophy this season.

 

BABA INDRAJITH

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu's Baba Indrajith celebrates his century during the Ranji Trophy game against Chhattisgarh at the Nehru Stadium in Guwahati. Photograph: ANI

Drawn in Group H, Tamil Nadu were ousted from the Ranji Trophy after finishing third in the group with two draws and one loss.

Yet there were some performances that stood out. M Shahrukh Khan made handy contributions in the team's big scores. But the most consistent player in the Tamil Nadu team was Baba Indrajith who struck three centuries and a fifty -- 117 (149 balls) vs Delhi; 127 (141) vs Chhattisgarh; 100 (132) vs Jharkhand and 52 (94) vs Jharkhand.

His first innings score of 100 against Jharkhand came at a crucial stage as he got his team out of a spot of bother to take them to a respectable target.

Indrajith has been a consistent performer since his debut eight years ago and over the years, handsome contributions, irrespective of the format, has seen him make a name for himself and become a regular member of the squad.

"Baba Indrajith, formerly a touch artist, has changed his batting style after a stint under coach Murali in Bengaluru. He can now play the big shots and was therefore picked by KKR for IPL 2022. With his part-time 'keeping skills, he may just make it to the KKR playing eleven," reckons cricket columnist Austin Coutinho.

"His three centuries couldn't help Tamil Nadu qualify. Perhaps they would do better to look for bowlers who can fetch them 20 wickets in a Ranji game," adds Coutinho.

 

BENGAL PACE BOWLERS

IMAGE: Bengal pace trio Akash Deep, Ishan Porel and Mukesh Kumar have been instrumental in the team's unbeaten run to the knockouts. Photograph: ANI

Bengal were the only team that won all three group matches, logging 18 points.

Instrumental in these wins were pacers Ishan Porel, Akash Deep and Mukesh Kumar.

In Bengal's opening game against Baroda, Porel was the wrecker-in-chief grabbing 4/40 as Baroda were bundled out for a paltry 181.

Porel triggered a collapse in the 15th over, with his twin blows of Devdhar (23) and Pratyush Kumar (0) in the space of three balls.

On a roll, Porel picked his third in the form of Shivalik Sharma (4) in his next over to reduce Baroda to 47/3.

Just when Baroda looked to get going with Krunal Pandya forming an alliance with 'keeper-batter Mitesh Patel, Akash Deep (2/63) dismissed Krunal and Abhimanyusingh Rajput in three balls to dent Baroda's hopes for a revival.

Mukesh Kumar ripped through the lower order to finish with 3/33.

'We have bowled well as a unit. When we got a breakthrough, wickets came in a cluster,' Porel said after the first innings.

In their second match against Hyderabad, Bengal made 242 before Mukesh rattled the Hyderabad top order by dismissing opener Akshath Reddy (0) and Tilak Varma (0) in successive overs.

He ended the innings with 4 for 49 while Akash and Porel took a wicket each.

Akash was the wrecker-in-chief (13.2-2-41-4) as Hyderabad, who were overnight 16 for three in their pursuit of 239 in the final innigs, folded for 166 inside two sessions with as many as five batters out for a duck.

Mukesh (2/49) and Ishan (1/20) were among the wickets as Bengal went past Hyderabad to occupy the top spot in Group B with a match left.

Against Chandigarh, the Bengal pacers continued to wreak havoc and led their team to a 152-run win.

Defending a stiff 413, Bengal bowled Chandigarh out for 260 on the final day with Porel (3/37), Mukesh (2/72) and Nilakantha Das (2/50) sharing seven wickets.

'I have been saying this for a long time that our bowlers have been performing endlessly for us, they have set very high standards for themselves and they live up to it,' Bengal Coach Arun Lal said. 'We depend on them, hats off to them.'

SHAMS MULANI

IMAGE: Mumbai left-arm spinner Shams Mulani is the highest wicket-taker so far this season. Photograph: Shams Mulani/Instagram

Shams Mulani is not a new name on the Ranji Trophy circuit. Mulani, who made his debut in 2018, has been a consistent performer for Mumbai.

The all-rounder was the highest wicket taker in the 2019-2020 Ranji season and he has done well to follow that up with another sterling performance this season.

In three matches of the league stage, the left-arm spinner picked 29 wickets, with two five-wicket hauls in the first two games against Odisha and Goa respectively. With this tally, bowling at an average of 15.62, he is now the leading wicket taker after the league stage this season.

He has bowled smartly, using the crease to good effect to create purchase and trouble batters, especially in the match against Goa where he picked 11 wickets, including a fifer.

The 25 year old from Ravi Shastri's alma mater, Don Bosco, Matunga (north central Mumbai), has also been impressive with the bat, scoring two half-centuries in four innings, amassing 132 runs at an average of 33.

"He has the talent to make it big," says Austin Coutinho. "He will not only have to keep performing at all levels since he has to compete with (Ravindra) Jadeja and Axar Patel (for a place in the Indian side). He will need to do something extraordinary to be noticed by the national selectors."

 

YASH DHULL

IMAGE: Delhi's Yash Dhull celebrates a century on debut against Tamil Nadu in Guwahati, February 17, 2022. Photograph: PTI

The Under-19 India skipper couldn't have asked for a better season.

After leading India to the Under-19 World Cup title, Dhull got his maiden call-up to the Delhi Ranji squad.

And what a way to announce his arrival in first-class cricket -- he scored centuries in both innings against Tamil Nadu.

Dhull, sent in an unfamiliar opening position in his first-ever first-class game, struck 113 off 150 balls (18 boundaries), but more importantly, resurrected the innings after Sandeep Warrier (2/69) removed veteran Dhruv Shorey (1) and young Himmat Singh (0) in quick succession.

Displaying fine technique against the Tamil Nadu pace trio of Saravanakumar P, Warrier and Mohammed Mohammed (2/40), Dhull played glorious shots square of the wicket.

He played the big shots with ease, but was equally sharp with running between the wickets when the fielders were spread deep. He was eventually trapped leg before for 113, but the batter made his mark.

Dhull followed it up with an identical score in Delhi's second innings to cap a memorable debut, becoming only the third batter after Nari Contractor (1952/1953) and Virag Awate (2012/2013) to score a hundred in each innings on Ranji Trophy debut.

Although he got low scores in the next match against Jharkhand (5 and 19) that saw Delhi knocked out after losing by 15 runs, Dhull was not to be bogged down in the final game against Chhattisgarh.

Dhull scored a 29 in the first innings and after being asked to follow on, he led his team's fight back with a maiden first class double century. He struck 26 boundaries during his knock and together with Shorey (100 off 208 balls, 13x4s) shared 246 runs for the opening stand to take the match away from Chhattisgarh.

Delhi Capitals will now hope Dhull carries forward the form into IPL 2022.

 

SHELDON JACKSON 

IMAGE: Saurashtra's Sheldon Jackson is Mr Consistency this season. Photograph: Sheldon Jackson/Facebook

Saurashtra wicket-keeper batsman Sheldon Jackson has been repeatedly sidelined by national selectors after busting his chops, year after year, for the last 10 seasons.

Since making his first-class debut in 2011 for Saurashtra, the wicket-keeper batter has been consistency personified.

The 35 year old was pivotal in Saurashtra winning its maiden Ranji Trophy title in 2019-2020 season' he scored 809 runs in 10 matches!

Although, he couldn't inspire his team, who failed to advance to the knockouts this season, he still raked up decent scores.

In the opening match against Mumbai, Jackson waged a lone battle on a wicket that saw Mumbai pile up a massive 554 for 7. He scored 61 in the first innings before Saurashtra were asked to follow on.

In Saurashtra's next match against Odisha, Sheldon chipped in with a solid 75 before the former champs steamrolled their opponents to win by an innings and 131 runs.

Now needing a win to make it to the quarters, Saurashtra started off well and this time Sheldon missed a century by 3 runs. A clean striker of the ball, his innings was laced with six fours and five sixes as Saurashtra posted 347 runs before Goa were dismissed for 311.

In the second essay, Sheldon notched up another half-ton (53 not out) and along with fellow half-centurions Cheteshwar Pujara and Snell Patel helped Saurashtra to a big 211 run win over Goa, only to be edged out by Mumbai, who finished three points ahead on 16 points and make the quarters.

Jackson was bought back by KKR at the IPL auction last month and is likely to be the first-choice 'keeper depending on the balance of the team.

'Jalaj Sexena, Sheldon Jackson, Akshay Wakhare, Mandeep Singh, they all should play for India in different formats... quality players...' Harbhajan Singh tweeted earlier this year. 'Rahul Dravid must look at these players performances in domestic seasons.'

 

Other notable performances from the League games:

SAKIBUL GANI

IMAGE: Sakibul Gani scored a record triple century on debut. Photograph: Tejashwi Yadav/Twitter

Bihar's 22-year-old right-hand batter Sakibul Gani made history by becoming the first man to hit a triple century on first-class debut, on February 18, the second day of Ranji Trophy 2021-2022.

Gani hit 341 in just 405 balls with two sixes and 56 fours and a strike rate of 84.20 against Mizoram in a Plate Group match at the Jadavpur University ground in Kolkata.

With this feat, Gani broke Ajay Rohera's record for the highest score on first-class debut --- 267 not out for Madhya Pradesh against Hyderabad in Indore set in the 2018-2019 Ranji season. Rohera himself had broken the record of Amol Muzumdar who scored a then record of 260 on debut for Bombay (as it was called then) against Haryana in the 1993-1994 season.

 

RIYAN PARAG

IMAGE: Riyan Parag conceded that it was an 'average' domestic season by his standards. Photograph: BCCI

Assam's Riyan Parag scored 293 from six innings at an average of 48.83 with his highest being 91 (vs Uttar Pradesh). He also took seven wickets at an average of 24.42.

His finest show coming against Vidarbha, scalping 5 wickets and giving 68 runs.

Parag conceded that it was an 'average' domestic season going by the standard he has set for himself.

'I missed a few 100s, I think I was in good nick and was batting well. In terms of bowling too, I got my first five-for. So yes, there is still huge scope for improvement,' the youngester said.

'The focus now is on prepping up for the IPL as I've played less white ball cricket in the last month or so, but a few sessions of good practice should help in preparing.'

 

KUMAR KUSHAGRA

IMAGE: 17-year-old wicketkeeper-batter Kumar Kushagra scored 266 off 269 balls in his third first-class appearance at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, March 13, 2022. Photograph: BCCI/Twitter

Jharkhand's 17-year-old Kumar Kushagra scored a superb half-century to help hand his team a narrow two run-win over Tamil Nadu.

Jharkhand topped the leaderboard with 12 points after losing the opening game to Chhattisgarh, and following that up with a 15 run win over Delhi.

Kumar, who was part of the 2020 Under-19 India squad to South Africa, then showed his skills in the pre-quarter-final against Nagaland.

He score 266 from just 269 balls, hitting 37 fours and two sixes as his team posted a mammoth 880 in the first innings of the match -- the fourth-highest team total in the Ranji Trophy.

Nagaland, in reply, were all out for 289 and the 591-run first innings lead effectively ended the game in Jharkhand's favour.

Jharkhand drew the game, but qualified for the quarter-final after taking a 1,000-plus run lead after scoring 417 for 6 -- Kumar scored 89 on the final day of the match.

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NORMA ASTRID GODINHO

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