Ranji Trophy needs more ‘Ashwin-Agarwal’ kind-of contests
Reporting from Dindigul
“I think this is going to be his year.” These were the words of then Kings XI Punjab skipper R Ashwin about his teammate Mayank Agarwal at the beginning of IPL 2019. Nine months later, Ashwin is absolutely right in his assessment about Agarwal.
Ashwin, an astute student of the game, definitely knows the fact that his current India Test teammate Agarwal can unleash a wide range of shots and can be dismissive on his day against any bowling unit especially spinners. Agarwal must have seen the bag of tricks Ashwin has at his disposal.
December 1, 2019: Ashwin outfoxed Agarwal and got the better of the latter caught and bowled for a first-ball duck in the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy finale.
December 9, 2019: Ashwin and Agarwal, with mutual respect for each other, locked horns once again in Dindigul on day 1 of the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka Ranji Trophy match.
“With mutual respect?” How could one define that? Agarwal, having survived a tricky spell of play for the first 30 minutes against the new ball pair of Vijay Shankar and K Vignesh, was all set for the Ashwin challenge.
Ashwin had a long-on in play straight away for Agarwal and the man on the other side of the field was in. South Africa off-spinner Dane Piedt, Bangladesh offie Mehidy Hasan...well, these guys know what Agarwal is capable of even with the fielders back on the boundary and Ashwin himself would have enjoyed Agarwal’s aggressive batting display against various opponents.
Long-on, in a way, was probably a catching position as well for Agarwal who loves taking on the men guarding the fence. The wicket had a little bit on offer for the spinners but the ball was coming slow off the pitch. And slow enough for Agarwal and young Devdutt Padikkal to tackle Ashwin even after misreading the length on a few occasions.
Agarwal was cautious. He knew that all Ashwin needed was just a mistake. One spun sharply, took an edge off the bat but fell just short of the short-leg fielder Abhinav Mukund. A straighter one followed suit.
Agarwal was up for the task. At one stage, Agarwal had scored just 3 off 38 balls. Defence was the need of the hour for Agarwal and Karnataka against a champion offie in Ashwin.
Padikkal was constantly beaten outside. Agarwal ensured he got outside the line of off stump and negated Ashwin. The ace Indian offie, however, was let down by debutant M Siddharth.
The young left-hand batsman, who was stuck in the crease for a few deliveries unsure of whether to go back or forward, got lured into a tossed up delivery from Ashwin. Padikkal spooned one to short covers where Siddharth was positioned, only for the latter to spill the chance.
Ashwin hurled the ball onto the ground in frustration. But ‘mentor’ Ashwin immediately went up to the debutant and encouraged him with a pat on the back.
Soon enough, Ashwin continued his steady bowling. There were no easy singles on offer down to long-on. There was no time for Agarwal to dance down. Agarwal chose sweep to break Ashwin’s momentum. On one particular ball, Agarwal planted his front food outside the off-stump and he swept the ball past the square-leg fielder for a boundary.
Ashwin gained a slight edge over Agarwal in the first 75 minutes, although that period was one that could be termed as a 'stalemate phase'. Agarwal was at his defensive best and on any other day, Ashwin could have easily picked up two or three wickets in that spell.
Post drinks, there was a slight change in strategy from Ashwin. There was no long-on and Ashwin probably wanted to go for broke. Agarwal was ready. Here was a man with two Test double-hundreds and a hundred in the last three months rising up to the challenge.
The 28-year-old batsman wasted no time. Agarwal lofted Ashwin straight over his head for a six right after the drinks break. Unruffled, Ashwin still had his men inside the ring. The Agarwal-Ashwin battle was certainly on at one end.
Neither gave up. Ashwin looked threatening all the time but Agarwal defied as well as dominated when the opportunity presented itself against the ace offie.
Test batsman Agarwal, in the form of his life, was in a mood to punish the rest of the Tamil Nadu bowling attack. Boundaries started to flow from the other end. A powerful drive through covers, a short-arm jab past square-leg, a slap through point and Agarwal was up and running. He changed gears swiftly and from 14 off 50 balls, he moved to 39 off 76 balls with a flurry of boundaries.
It seemed as if the TN bowling unit - comprising four spinners - were in for a long day against Agarwal. Ashwin had bowled nine testing overs to Agarwal and Padikkal without much luck. An exceptional paddle sweep from Agarwal welcomed left-arm spinner Siddharth into first-class cricket.
Suddenly, against the run of play, maybe a lapse in concentration against the rookie left-arm spinner saw Agarwal (43, 78b, 7x4s, 1x6s) edge a delivery that spun a bit before taking an edge off the bat and was well caught by Baba Aparajith at slip.
Eventually, Siddharth had the last laugh. But the 9-over spell from Ashwin against Agarwal - two of the best in the country right now - was the ideal start the country’s premier domestic competition needed.
Ranji Trophy desperately needs these superstar battles more often.Modified 21 Dec 2019, 01:17 IST