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Ranji in Review: Elite Group Semi-finals

8 wickets at Mumbai

By Thaleel
March 21 2005

At the start of the season, plenty was said - both good and bad - about the move to bring former Pakistan player Intikhab Alam in to coach the Punjab team. Right now, the PCA certainly won't be complaining with the Punjab side having upset Mumbai in a nailbiter to reach the Ranji finals.

Tensions at the Wankhede

In a season where domestic cricket has suddenly shown a greater balance between bat and ball than before with far more enthralling contests being put on - the Wankhede semi-final might have been the high point of the season so far. It was the sort of nailbiter that the Ranji and Duleep Trophy have sorely lacked in the past, ebbing and flowing throughout the game with both teams being in it almost neck-and-neck until almost the last ball was bowled.

Once Mumbai won the toss and opted to bat, Gagandeep Singh made yet another statement with the ball. It's been a stunning season for the young seamer, who began the Preliminary league with three five-fors in four innings and subsequently earned a call up for the tests against Bangladesh. Here, he rocked the Mumbai top order and removed openers Vinayak Mane and Wasim Jaffer as Mumbai slumped to 23/2. From thereon, wickets fell at a steady pace - Vinit Indulkar who had impressed earlier in the season fell to VR Singh, Shetty and Bahutule went in quick succession and at 92/5, Mumbai looked to be staring down the barrel with four of their five specialist batsmen out.

The tactic of playing a number of bowlers who can hold their own with the bat though has often been a reason for their success in the past, and Ajit Agarkar (47) and Ramesh Powar (32) staged a recovery along with Amol Muzumdar, as Mumbai clawed back to a somewhat respectable score of 251 all out. The score though soon changed proportions from 'competitive' to 'seemingly mammoth' as Mumbai's bowlers rocked Punjab. Left arm spinner Nilesh Kulkarni struck vital blows early, removing dangerman Yuvraj Singh for a duck and once opener Ravneet Ricky was run out, wickets began tumbling. Captain Bahutule finished with four cheap wickets as Punjab were skittled for 126, giving Mumbai a lead of 125 - when it had at one point seemed as if the defending champions would be struggling to even get a lead in the first place.

Punjab though were back in the game by stumps on day 2. Coach CS Pandit blasted the top order's batting display in the media as "shocking" that night, as Mumbai squandered the lead and advantage they had held earlier, at one point slumping to a score of 82/8. A fighting knock of 69 though from Nishit Shetty, the only batsman that innings to pass 25, and a 94-ball vigil at the crease from Kulkarni saw the score lift back to a barely more acceptable 168. Gagandeep Singh finished with another bag of four wickets, making it eight in the match for him while spinners Navdeep Singh and Rajesh Sharma shared five between them in the second dig.

With Mumbai's first innings lead though, Punjab were left a fourth innings target of 294 to get to the finals and do what no team had done since March 2001 - beat Mumbai in Mumbai. The top order all got starts, with 20s for the openers and big-guns Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Mongia scoring 42 and 49 respectively, but at 145/4, when Ajit Agarkar claimed his third wicket to have Yuvraj caught behind, it seemed to be anybody's game. Gaurav Gupta, demoted from the opener's slot after a first innings failure, rode his luck as he survived two dropped chances in the field while veteran keeper Pankaj Dharmani steered the side towards the target.

With a scoreline of 226/4 overnight, Punjab looked favorites as day four began, but returning seamer Avishkar Salvi struck to remove Gupta for 34 and strike seamer Agarkar followed, removed allrounder Amit Uniyal for a duck in the next over. Navdeep Singh hung around briefly, but was dismissed by Kulkarni and Punjab were in a tight spot, needing another 33 runs with 3 wickets in hand. Dharmani though showed all his class and experience though as Gagandeep Singh gave him company with Punjab reaching the target with three wickets to spare in a nailbiter.

The only shame was the audience - or lack of it. Overshadowed by the Kolkata test and with the game ending on a weekday, only around 300 fans were in attendance to witness the finish in Mumbai - a real shame given the closely-contested nature of the match.

Pagnis leads Railways to the finals

There were far fewer bitten nails at the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi as Railways clinched a low-scoring encounter. After winning the toss and batting, Hyderabad found themselves 0/2 at the end of the first over, and it never went uphill from there. Only youngster Anirudh Singh gritted his teeth for a fine 92, while none of the top or middle order could enter double figures with Ambati Rayudu's horror season this year continuing, and Hyderabad finally folded for 166 - with the next highest score after Anirudh's 92 being NP Singh's 16.

Hyderabad fought back against a batting lineup that looked far stronger on paper, with debuting left arm spinner Pragyan Ojha taking the first five wickets to fall. None of the Railways batsmen could convert starts into substantial scores, and captain Bangar was left looking at a lead of only 14 runs. Hyderabad though couldn't capitalize. A good opening stand of 68 saw the deficit wiped out with ease, but yet again a batting lineup that's appeared fragile both on paper and against the Railways attack folded meekly. Only three made it to double figures as Murali Kartik removed the top order and Harvinder Singh ran through the tail to set their side a target of 157.

Given the low-scoring nature of the game until then, Hyderabad may have fancied their chances, but opener Amit Pagnis wrecked whatever hopes might have been there, dominating a strong opening stand of 72 alongside captain Sanjay Bangar. Two wickets though in the space of three more overs suddenly saw Railways tottering at 80/3, but Pagnis continued on, dominating the scoring and finally finishing unbeaten on 98 as Railways overran the target by 141 runs.

For Hyderabad, it ended a season of inconsistent performances that had begun with an innings defeat against Tamil Nadu. Most worrying though was the form of youngster Ambati Rayudu, who had been touted by many as the next great Indian batting hope. In the preliminary league, Rayudu had scraped out a total of 143 runs and finally ended the season with a tally of 155 runs at a dismal average of 11.92.

For Railways, it will mean a trip to Mohali where they will take on a strong Punjab lineup - albeit one that may be weakened by the absence of key batsman Yuvraj Singh. Even then, with the impressive form of the Punjab pace bowling attack - particularly on their home wicket - Intikhab's men will almost certainly be favorites to take the Ranji Trophy this season.

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