Battle-hardened Bengal ready for Railways challenge

Bengal squad ahead of the season. © Special Arrangement

They were without their two young superstars – Deepti Sharma and Richa Ghosh. Their captain, Jhulan Goswami, went down in the first game. Their season looked dead and buried in the quarter-final, but Bengal somehow found a way through.

“Nothing comes easy,” Bengal fast bowler Sukanya Parida tells Women’s CricZone. Kuch paane ke liye mehnat karna padta hai. [You need to work hard to achieve something]. Sometimes the path is not straightforward, but if you fight through, you’ll get there in the end.”

Bengal’s path to their third consecutive one-day semi-final has been anything but “straightforward”. However, the former champions have managed to stay in the competition by the skin of their teeth. In every game, a new hero has emerged, and now, battled-hardened, they return to familiar territory, ready to take back their title.

The new kid on the block

Under a new head coach, Rituparna Roy, and with a new professional, Vanitha VR, in their ranks, Bengal kicked off their campaign with a nervy three-wicket win over Rajasthan.

In a chase of 207, they had collapsed to 63 for 4 before the pair of Dhara Gujjar and Parna Paul dug them out of that hole. With Goswami unable to bat due to the finger injury she had sustained in the field, Parida watched nervously from the dugout as Bengal inched closer to the target.

With 49 runs to get, Paul’s dismissal caused another hiccup, leaving Parida to walk in at No.9 with 36 runs to get in 56 balls. On the sidelines, Goswami was padding up, ready to walk in if her team needed her. Finger strapped up, she could barely hold the bat, but like the captain of the Titanic, she would not abandon her ship.

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“Just before I walked in to bat we found out about the severity of Jhuli di’s injury,” Parida recollects. “No one in her place could bat, but she was ready to come out and bat. That was a commendable thing.”

“So, when I joined Dhara in the middle, I just said one thing – whatever happens, we should not let Jhulu di come in; we have to finish it off. Seeing her passion (for the team), that really fired us up.”

In the company of Gujjar, who scored an unbeaten 92, Parida stoically held one end up to finish on nine off 24 balls, taking Bengal home in the penultimate over.

They had found their first hero: Dhara Gujjar.

©Vanitha VR/ Instagram

Bengal’s opening pair, Vanitha VR and Dhara Gujjar. © Vanitha VR/ Instagram

“For an 18-19-year-old, Dhara was extremely calm in that pressure situation,” says Parida. “She was only leading me through the chase. I liked the way she was approaching the game – keeping everything very simple. The way she handled the pressure was very impressive. It shows her character, and what she is capable of.”

“The good thing is, she has carried that form through the tournament.”

The old pro

Gujjar continued the good form through the league phase, backing up her 92* with scores of 49 and 115 against Andhra and Himachal Pradesh in what were relatively comfortable wins for Bengal. With skipper Goswami ruled out for the remainder of the tournament, seniors Vanitha (61 v Andhra) and stand-in captain Rumeli Dhar (65 and 3 for 4 v Himachal Pradesh) made their presence felt as well.

But when the chips were down against Punjab, it was their second professional who really stepped up for Bengal. With her team reeling at 71 for 6 against Punjab, Gouher Sultana’s rearguard act – an unbeaten 32 off 55 balls – saw Bengal post 125.

It was well below par on a surface where run-making should have been easy, but Bengal channeled their inner Goswami. It was time for the senior bowlers to step up.

Cue the arrival of Sultana and Parida.

“Initially, when the batting collapsed, we were sad. I mean, we all tried our heart out, but it was just not our day,” recollects Parida.

“When we were going into the field the one thing that was said was, ‘with the bowling side we have, we can make this chase really difficult for Punjab. Chalo yaar kuch karke dikhate hai’ [Let’s show them what we can do]. We knew we could give them a good fight. We saw the game as a test of character – something that would show how we, as bowlers, react to the pressure.”

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Dhar and Sultana began brilliantly with the ball, tying Punjab’s batters in knots before Parida dismantled their middle order with a four-wicket burst.

“Initially Rumi di bowled really well in that match. She got us an early breakthrough. And then of course, the way Gouher di started was brilliant. Their spells gave us momentum, so when I was handed the ball, it was just about maintaining that pressure.”

“We knew we needed wickets to win, but at the same time, we didn’t have enough runs to play with, so couldn’t afford to leak too many in search of wickets. My aim was to simply bowl according to the field and build dot ball pressure.”

19-year-old Kanika Ahuja batted Punjab back into the game with a knock of 44, but when she was dismissed trying to sweep a full delivery from Sultana, Bengal squeezed the life out of the game. Sultana’s incredible spell of 10-6-8-2 helped Bengal eke out a very unlikely four-run win.

© Special Arrangement

Sukanya Parida and Gouher Sultana. © Special Arrangement

The influencers

“At the start of the season, when I looked around the group it was an amazing feeling,” Parida chuckles. “So many amazing players – so many chances to learn.”

Bengal has as many as 482 international caps in their current squad. 272 of those belong to Goswami. Dhar accounts for 100, Sultana can claim 87, Vanitha owns 22, while Parida herself has played an ODI for India.

“Jhulu di has always been there. She brings that amazing passion to the team. We all know what she is like and all the things she has achieved. I have learnt so much from her through my career; just watching her bowl from the other end or in the nets… Then, how she trains and all. She’s a big inspiration.”

“Then Rumi di is also there. I have heard so much about her and also played with her a bit… Vani di and Gouher di also. Every time I see Gouher di I get to learn so much. I discuss a lot of things with her, especially my bowling plans. She always gives me advice on what I can do and how to improve and all that.”

The opportunity to ask questions and observe from close quarters both in the nets and on the field have certainly helped the side, admits Parida. She adds that the knowledge of having so much experience to draw upon when the side is under pressure has also lifted their spirits – something that’s helped even more after Goswami was ruled out.

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“You can get so much motivation when they are around. The environment is so good as well. If we have any doubts, we can talk to them. We are really learning a lot from all of them and it is showing in our performances.”

Pulling off the improbable

Having made their way straight into the quarter-finals after a massive 175-run win over Hyderabad, courtesy centuries from, Vanitha and Dhar, Bengal faced Delhi in their first knockout clash.

They were undoubtedly the favourites going into the game. They had more experience. They had the form players. They should have steamrolled Delhi. But again, it was a game in which Bengal huffed and puffed over the finish line.

In a chase of 186, they were reduced to 97 for 7 in 33.3 overs. All their big guns had been dismissed; a win seemed beyond reach. Gujjar was in the middle, providing solidity at one end, but what Bengal needed was someone who could score quickly as well.

Enter, Jhumia Khatun.

While Gujjar held steady, playing expansively only when the bowlers erred, Khatun kept the run rate ticking – pushing the ones and twos in an attempt to help Bengal keep up with the rate. Staring at the scorecard, the task seemed improbable, but in the dugout, Bengal still believed.

© Special Arrangement

Bengal are all smiles after registering another victory. © Special Arrangement

“We all were trying to keep calm and trying to talk positive things in the dressing room,” Parida recollects. “There were clouds hovering, and rain forecast… We were all praying for the rain not to stop play.”

Well behind the required VJD score, the only way Bengal could win was if a full game were to take place.

In the middle Gujjar and Khatun kept batting, and Delhi became more desperate for a wicket. The longer they batted, the louder the cheers in the dressing room became.

“When Dhara and Jhumia were playing we had that confidence that they could get us through. We just needed them to be there and fight till the end. We wanted to win badly. So, with every run we were like up on our toes, cheering all the time.”

The pair’s 66-run stand was finally broken when Parunika Sisodia had Gujjar caught behind for a 120-ball 75. At the time, Bengal needed 24 runs off 23 balls.

That’s when Saika Ishaque took centrestage.

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The left-hander joined Khatun and smashed a boundary almost as soon as she came in, taking the pressure off her partner. They continued to chip away at the target. In the penultimate over, Khatun clobbered Soni Yadav for a six over mid-wicket – a blow that all but sealed the game in Bengal’s favour. Ishaque then finished it off with a slog through the leg-side.

“The way Saika played was a huge thing and her contribution was absolutely fantastic,” beams Parida. “That win was absolutely a total team effort and that’s what Jhulan di also appreciated. She said this is the best thing that can happen to the team who never gives up and fights till the end.”

“We are here because we played together and believed in each other.”

The next step

Through their campaign so far, Bengal have reflected the attitude of their skipper Goswami – never giving up, even under the direst of circumstances. Every time they were put under pressure, they found a new hero, their young players showing the ability to do the heavy lifting when the seniors have stumbled.

Going into the semi-final where they will face Indian Railways at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Thursday (November 18), those struggles will hold them in good stead. They will, of course, be required to play almost the perfect game to get past the defending champions, but through the season, they have developed something no other team has – an army of players who have stepped up at different points to win games. And that will mean they are quietly confident that they can counter anything that comes their way.

And if nothing else, they will hope the ghosts of 2018-19 come to haunt Railways at some point in the day!

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