RANJI TROPHY 2017-18
Dhuper’s gritty 97 denied Tamil Nadu three points in Cuttack. © Agencies
About ten overs are left and Odisha are still 25 runs adrift of taking the lead with only two wickets in hand. As the pulse rates are sinking in both camps, the natural light is fading fast too at the DRIEMS ground in Cuttack. The umpires get together and have a chat around this time and decide to offer the light. Tamil Nadu are in dire need of three points – they came in with hopes of bagging six, but Odisha will trade for nothing less having come so close. Understandably, skipper Abhinav Mukund doesn’t settle for a draw, even though the officials make it adequately clear that he cannot use his fast bowlers anymore. He brings in the spinners to push his luck. Odisha bat on.
In the next two overs, novice wicketkeeper-batsman Rajesh Dhuper ensures with a six and a four that Odisha wipe off 14 more runs. Tamil Nadu are now in with a real scare of losing two points. Both Dhuper and No. 10 batsman Basant Mohanty have a quick chat sensing that Tamil Nadu could now call for a draw at the end of the next over. The message from the senior pro is to go for the big hits and finish it off then and there.
First ball, Dhuper heaves Sundar for a towering six over long on. As the Odisha camp breaks into raucous cheers, Basant takes a quick stock of the conditions. Having been in constant chats with the officials, he sensed that that could be the final over. Basant checks with Dhuper if he can finish it off in the same over. Dhuper attempts the same shot but this time a leading edge lands safely in the lap of Baba Indrajith at point. Dhuper out for 97. Odisha still five short and one wicket in hand. Over the next nine balls, Odisha nudge ahead of Tamil Nadu’s total and secure a lead that looked improbable throughout.
“Although there were six more overs remaining in the day’s play, I sensed that was the last over since I hit Washington Sundar for a six off the first ball. Their skipper, Mukund, immediately came up to the bowler and had a chat with Sundar. Basant, who was at the other end, felt that it would be the last over. He asked me to push further but the century was perhaps not to be,” Dhuper told Cricbuzz at the end of the game on Sunday (November 12).
Dhuper will turn 18 in less than a month’s time. He has just missed a hundred – would have been his first – by three runs but there was no semblance of hurt after the game. The teenager rather put forth his mature best by adding that his dismissal rather ensured Tamil Nadu pursued with their chances of pushing for three points. They bowled two more overs after he was out.
A strong believer of the fact that there’s a silver lining to his 97, Dhuper not for once regretted missing a hundred. “I’m glad that my dismissal actually gave Tamil Nadu the hope of three points again. In a way, my dismissal ensured that there were more overs because otherwise they were settling in for a draw at that point in time.”
When Tamil Nadu declared on 530 for 8 with 13 overs to be played on the second day, the tourists knew that Odisha’s brittle opening pair would be the first to cave. From the past five instances, they had only put 27 runs batting together. However on that day, both Sandeep Pattnaik and experienced Natraj Behera brought out their different selves to put in place something they hadn’t achieved so far in the season. “The real pressure though wasn’t on the final day, it was rather on the second day when we had to bat out 13 overs. Sandeep Pattnaik and Natraj Behera batted out that period scoring 37 runs. We were quite tensed about that phase – we wanted to come back without losing a wicket – because our opening stands hadn’t been going as per plan otherwise. Once we got through that day, both of them seemed totally different batsmen the following day. It was difficult to believe that these two batsmen had been out of touch in the past few games. Natraj’s maturity was outstanding,” skipper Govinda Poddar said.
The opening pair stitched a 128-run stand and Odisha batted through the third day to reach 286 for 4, but they still needed 244 runs to knock off the deficit on the final day. “In our meeting last night (Saturday) by when we had lost four wickets already, we were told by the seniors and the management that we could still achieve the lead since the wicket was very good for batting. Biplab [Samantray] and Shantanu [Mishra] pulled us through that critical one hour at the start today, after which we really started believing that this could be achieved,” Dhuper said.
Dhuper acknowledged the presence of Shantanu at the crease, with who he added 42 runs for the sixth wicket. He admits that his first 10-15 runs were difficult but once he got through it, things became a lot easier on a wicket he felt never changed and remained very good for batting. The next two batsmen hit a cumulative of eight fours and four sixes during their half-century stands with Dhuper as Odisha inched closer. While there was ample support from the opposite end, Dhuper showed tremendous awareness to pull through with the tail.
“It was challenging, of course, to bat with the tail. After Alok Sahoo was out, Suryakant [Pradhan] chipped in with a valuable contribution too. Basant has been around for a long time and has bailed the team out from similar positions in the past. So, we kept believing that we could do it.”
While Odisha did achieve the impossible, both skipper (Poddar) and the man of the match (Dhuper) credited Tamil Nadu for their big heart to push for the maximum out of a game. “I was happy with the spirit of the Tamil Nadu team. They just showcased why they are a big side. I have played against quite a few sides in my career so far, there would be many sides who would not risk giving away three points to the opposition. Tamil Nadu could have done exactly that when the umpires offered the light with still ten odd overs to go. Pacers were not allowed to bowl beyond that point and it was unbelievable to see Mukund bring in spinners and continue with the game. They were in the game to grab three points, that’s something one should learn. Even the match referee appreciated the same,” said Poddar.
“It had gotten really dark and the umpires did check with Mukund if they would look to call it off. But the Tamil Nadu skipper was forthright in his opinion that they were sure to continue,” said Basant. As the 30-year-old recollected the entire event himself, he heaped praises on Mukund. “Mukund mentioned that as much as they deserved three points, Odisha had played extremely well to get as close. As much as we will give ourselves a chance at the cost of they stealing it too, we are okay. We will go for it is what Mukund had said,” Basant understands.
Odisha have ensured that their next two opponents – Baroda and Madhya Pradesh – would not take them lightly. And even though the Poddar-led unit could come up with better performances in those games, this would remain special.
It was only in the last season that Odisha broke their 15-year-long duck of not making it to the quarterfinal in the Ranji Trophy. Fast track one year and they are back to where they would not want to belong. A rain-marred affair against Tripura, a draw against Andhra, a loss at the hands of Mumbai is all they had before Tamil Nadu had almost decided to bat them out of the contest. However, a very young Odisha batting line-up defied all odds to not just avoid a defeat but also claim a lead that rewarded them with three points. The three points do not take them anywhere close to qualification [Odisha are out of contention for the knockouts] but the manner in which the batsmen rallied around without any individual hundred to down Tamil Nadu’s 530 [Tamil Nadu had three centurions] would give them a lot of joy.