The Ranji Trophy is approaching its business end and the race for the quarterfinal berths is heating up. In the ninth and final round, beginning on Wednesday, Punjab takes on Bengal at the Dhruve Pandove Stadium here.
Bengal (26 points) is fourth on the combined Elite A and B table with Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka trying to sneak past it. Saurashtra and Gujarat have already qualified for the quarterfinals.
Manoj Tiwary (503 runs from nine innings) has been the fulcrum around which Bengal’s batting has revolved. Against Hyderabad, Tiwary became only the second Bengal batsman, after Devang Gandhi (323, 1998-99), to make a First Class triple hundred.
His innings allowed Bengal to romp to a bonus-point victory. However, he has struggled for batting form since and will hope to dig deep here.
Bengal has momentum on its side after Shahbaz Ahmed’s stunning unbeaten 61 steered it to an improbable two-wicket win against Rajasthan in the last match.
There have also been valuable contributions from Abhishek Raman and Shreevats Goswami at different stages, but captain Abhimanyu Easwaran has failed to string together a consistent run of scores.
A fighting performance with the bat is what Bengal direly needs right now, against Punjab (24 points) — No. 6 in Elite, Cross Pool — that edged past Andhra in the previous round at the same venue.
Gurkeerat, Markande ruled out
Anmol Malhotra struck a fluent 51 to take Punjab over the line. He was ably supported by Siddarth Kaul — who took a hat-trick — Mayank Markande and Vinay Choudhary, on a pitch that saw as many as 24 wickets tumble on day one alone. Markande is down with flu and will not feature in this match while Gurkeerat Mann is out with a knee injury.
It will be interesting to see how the pitch behaves and what the side winning the toss decides. In recent times, more than 24 wickets (28) have fallen in a day only on two occasions — in 2011-12 & 2012-13.
Bengal will leave the spin burden with Ahmed while the promising Akash Deep (20 wickets), Bengal’s leading wicket-taker so far, Mukesh Kumar and Nilkantha Das are likely to spearhead the pace department against an in-form Punjab batting comprising skipper Mandeep Singh and Malhotra.
Another win for Bengal should guarantee a quarterfinal berth.
The pitch will be in focus as the spinners called the shots in the Andhra Pradesh-Punjab game and 24 wickets fell on the first day.