The battle to secure a place in the Ranji Trophy Plate Division final kicks off on Wednesday as Maharashtra take on Himachal Pradesh in Pune and Vidharbha face Hyderabad in Nagpur. The winners of these two semi-finals will progress to the final and earn the right to play among the big boys of the Elite Division next season.
The four semi-finalists have done well to reach this far over the past one and a half months. Maharashtra, led by 21-year-old Rohit Motwani, have been the most convincing team, beating Hyderabad, Jharkhand and Assam to top Group B. Their success has largely been down to the productivity of their young players. Ankit Bawne (19), Chirag Khurana (19), Kedar Jadhav (26), Motwani (21), Sangram Atitkar (23), Nikhil Paradkar (24) and Harshad Khadiwale (23) have all chipped in with runs to support a young bowling attack of which left-arm seamer Samad Fallah (26) and left-arm spinner Akshya Darekar (23) have taken a combined 54 wickets.
Khurana has been a key player this season, scoring 304 runs in three matches. Darekar has led the bowling admirably, scalping 31 wickets at an average of 16.03, including taking eight wickets in an innings against Hyderabad at the start of the Ranji season.
Maharashtra take on Himachal Pradesh and Vidharbha face Hyderabad in the semi-finals beginning Wednesday.
Maharashtra's opponents, HP, have risen this far on the basis of their bowlers. Rishi Dhawan, 21, has 27 wickets at 26.96, veteran Vikramjit Malik has 17 at 27.23 and rookie offspinner Gurvinder Singh has contributed 16. Dhawan has not only taken wickets but also scored runs – 296 to be precise.
For Vidharbha, this is the first time in nearly ten years that they have reached the semi-finals and the presence of three professionals in their ranks – former India players Sairaj Bahutule, Hemang Badani and Shiv Sunder Das – augurs well as the knock-out phase intensifies. Bahutule, also a former Mumbai allrounder, has topped the batting averages with 369 runs at 184.50, followed by Ranjit Paradkar (487 at 121.75) and Badani (221 at 55.25). Das (210), Shalabh Shrivastava (225) and Aniruddha Chore (218) have also contributed. With the ball, seamers Sandeep Singh (18), Shrikant Wagh (18) and Amol Jungade (15) have taken 51 of 73 wickets in five matches.
That Hyderabad have reached this far is a tribute to their spirit. Since being thrashed at home by Maharashtra, they have won two matches to finish behind Maharashtra on the points table. Leading the way have been 20-year-old Akshath Reddy with 509 runs and bowlers Anwar Ahmed and Lalit Mohan. Apart from clutch innings from several batsmen, the standout was wicketkeeper Ibrahim Khaleel's world-record 14 dismissals against Assam.
Over the next four days, these four teams will duel it out in an attempt to compete with the Elite Division teams.