Priyank Panchal has 1120 runs. Shahbaz Nadeem has 50 wickets. Nobody in the Ranji Trophy 2016-17 so far has more runs or wickets. Both men will come up against each other in the semifinal, but, in spite of the weight of numbers, most eyes – and all television cameras – will be trained on the other semifinal pitting defending champions Mumbai against a Tamil Nadu side that has just beaten a formidable Karnataka in two days.
Gujarat v Jharkhand is the underdog among semifinals. Jharkhand have never reached the final four, Gujarat got there only once, far back in 1950-51. If you cast that history aside and focus only on the present season though, the possibilities that both teams offer when they face off at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Ground in Nagpur from Sunday (January 1) are endless. Jharkhand have had a blockbuster run in the tournament so far, not losing a single match and topping Group B with a whopping 39 points. Gujarat too have not lost a point, preferring the method of piling on the runs and coming out ahead on the first-innings for the most part, but the manner in which they have built totals speaks of a formidably solid batting line-up.
Along with Panchal, Gujarat have Samit Gohel, the latest to grab headlines in the Ranji Trophy for his batting feats. Gohel’s gargantuan 359 not out in the quarterfinal against Odisha was the highest knock in first-class cricket for an opener carrying his bat, and it has seen him leapfrog into second on the team’s charts with 822 runs. Most crucial of all, Gujarat will be fortified by the presence of Parthiv Patel. The regular captain had returned from a remarkable comeback with the Indian Test team in time for the knockouts, and his big-match experience will be invaluable in such a high-stakes game – to speak nothing of his batting, wicketkeeping and leadership.
Under Parthiv, Gujarat have become a national force in white-ball cricket with titles in the 50-over and 20-over formats. After a few near-misses in previous editions, they have now stepped up in the longer format as well.
“We always had a good run in one-day matches and Twenty20. In the Ranji Trophy, in the last four years, we missed out by quotient or net run-rate,” said Parthiv. “I think we always had a good team. But this year we have gone to a different level. We worked together before the season started and we spoke about someone really batting big with an outstanding performance like what Priyank Panchal has done, not scoring (just) an aggregate of 500 runs. Or a bowler to take 30-plus wickets. I think we have ticked all those boxes and that’s why we are here. These guys have been playing for six to seven years now and they know their game. We had bits and pieces performances before. We wanted the players to lift their averages to 70, 80 and 100 like Panchal. Yes, we are batting-heavy side. That’s because we batted on flat wickets.”
They will miss the services of Axar Patel however, out with a finger injury. But in Jasprit Bumrah and Rush Kalaria, Gujarat have found able bowling leaders. Bumrah’s white-ball credentials were always regarded highly, and his elevation to the Indian team proved that. He’s had a good time in the Ranji Trophy this year too, with 17 wickets in six matches at 22.94. Kalaria, the left-arm seam-bowling allrounder, has been more than handy with both bat and ball. He is Gujarat’s leading wicket-taker with 26 scalps at 21.53, and has also made valuable runs as a batting average of 31.88 in the season attests.
Jharkhand’s batting may not have quite the skyscraper numbers that Gujarat have racked up – but in Ishan Kishan and Ishank Jaggi, they have a pretty solid duo of their own. Both have crossed 700 runs each, and Saurabh Tiwary, the captain, has been a steadying presence in the middle order. It will also hearten Jharkhand that Virat Singh shrugged off a lean season with a skilled century in the quarterfinal against Haryana.
The win against Haryana has given Jharkhand a huge dose of self-belief. As Nadeem put it when speaking to Wisden India, the fact that they were able to win outright despite Ashish Kumar limping off with a broken hip after bowling only seven balls spoke of their resolve and ability to step up.
Ashish, whose season unfortunately ended with 31 wickets, had given Jharkhand crucial zip first up. With Varun Aaron on an extended injury break, the bowling attack will look to Nadeem once again. The understated left-arm spinner already has 101 wickets over the last two Ranji seasons, and if his 11 for 157 against Haryana was any indication, he’s far from done.
It is tempting to view this as a contest between Jharkhand’s bowlers and Gujarat’s batsmen, but while that could form the overall picture, how the other units of both teams sync together is what will determine who goes on to a first-ever Ranji final. The nerves – some of Jharkhand’s were on display in the final stages of the chase against Haryana – will have to be handled, the fielders will have to be alert. On evidence of this season so far, the intangibles of team spirit and togetherness already exist in both camps, with the whole greater than the sum of their parts.
The fact that these two teams have reached the semifinals means the new year will already be a happy one for them. The contest now is to see which team can reach a first Ranji final, and make it happier still.
Gujarat: Parthiv Patel (capt, wk), Rujul Bhatt, Priyank Panchal, Samit Gohel, Bhargav Merai, Manprit Juneja, Chirag Gandhi, Rush Kalaria, Mehul Patel, Karan Patel, Hardik Patel, Chintan Gaja, Dhruv Rawal, RP Singh, Jasprit Bumrah.
Jharkhand: Saurabh Tiwary (capt), Ishan Kishan (vice-capt, wk), Ishank Jaggi, Virat Singh, Anand Singh, Kaushal Singh, Pratyush Singh, Rahul Shukla, Jaskaran Singh, Ajay Yadav, Bikash Singh, Shahbaz Nadeem, Samar Quadri, Sunny Gupta, Sumit Kumar.