Match Preview – Odisha vs Jharkhand, Ranji Trophy 2016/17, Group B

Remote, tranquil and alluring, little about the St. Xavier’s College Ground in Thumba is reminiscent of the archetypal cricket stadium. Away from the hubhub of the city, the gentle breeze that steadily blows across mitigates the lingering humidity due to the geographic location, with the St. Andrew’s beach to the west of the ground.

Jharkhand return to the venue not just with fond memories – Ishan Kishan slammed 273, the highest in Jharkhand’s history in their previous match here – but an unwavering confidence that stems from having made the quarter-finals for the second successive season.

Jharkhand’s youngsters have been the flavour of their season, and nothing encapsulated that better than that innings from Kishan. The 18-year-old has grabbed eyeballs not just for his attacking brand of batsmanship, but also for the remarkable consistency with which he has been able to do it. Kishan and Ishank Jaggi have scored over 1200 runs and six centuries, making Jharkhand one of only two teams – Tamil Nadu being the other – to have two batsmen with three or more centuries.

At the other end, Odisha would be more relieved than confident heading into the match. A frantic week of uncertainties ended with Odisha qualifying for their first knockouts in a decade courtesy Delhi’s defeat to Saurashtra.

Odisha have benefitted immensely from their team firing in unison. Six of their batsmen have scored centuries, and their bowlers too have shared the wickets. Odisha have welcomed Biplab Samantray’s return to form after a drab 2015-16. Samantray was sacked as captain and later left out, but has regained his mojo; his 498 runs to go alongside 11 wickets have served Odisha well.

Govinda Poddar, the man who took over from Samantray as leader, has thrived in his new role and hasn’t let it affect his batting. Young Subhranshu Senapati and Sandeep Pattnaik have also impressed in their debut seasons. While opener Pattnaik’s performances have fallen off in the latter half, Senapati’s consistency despite floating a bit in the line-up has lent solidity in the middle order.

Odisha’s new-ball combination has come good with Suryakant Pradhan topping their charts with 26 wickets and Basant Mohanty claiming 17. Samantray has performed the supporting seamer’s role well, while left-arm spinner Dhiraj Singh has also been among the wickets. Jharkhand, on the other hand, have primarily relied on Shahbaz Nadeem, the left-arm spinner, and medium pacer Ashish Kumar, although they do hold a slight advantage having already played a match here.

Run-fest, the norm. Will it be different this time around?

The ground has faced its share of criticism despite its short history. Sunil Joshi, the Assam coach, had expressed disappointment at the run-up areas that were too sandy and the dressing rooms where repair works were underway during their match against Vidarbha. Jharkhand too had some complaints.

“I found the dressing room too small. There is no air conditioner, and in this heat, if you field for two and a half hours, what do you do?” Saurabh Tiwary, the captain, said. “In the last match we played, when we used to come back after fielding, we used to get our lunch and sit outside in the tent. This time, too, we will do the same. You will see it.”

The dressing room works have been completed now. But with two new grounds coming up around the city, this venue is soon set to be used only for junior cricket, meaning the change room facilities are only temporary arrangements.

The presence of sand, which can still be seen abundantly on the peripheries of the stadium, is a result of the ground’s topography. But on the flip side, it makes the outfield quick and soft, minimising the risk of injury.

The last time a match was played here, between Delhi and Jharkhand in November, 1307 runs were scored across four days – the third-highest aggregate of the season. That game was played on a red soil surface, while Thursday’s clash happens on a clay surface. Nonetheless, it’s expected to be another high-scoring match, although spinners will find a lot of assistance and the pitch could start crumbling as early as on the second day.

“The pitch for the first game (against Delhi), we knew that it was fully flat. But this one is entirely different,” Tiwary said. “For around eight feet on either side, there has been no rolling or watering. I reckon it should start spinning on the second or the third day.”

While the result of this match will make no difference to the qualification scenario with both teams already through, there is still plenty to look forward to. Odisha, despite having qualified, have only two outright wins, and another one here will set things up nicely heading into the knockouts of what has been a huge season for them. For Jharkhand, this will be an opportunity to top the group.

Akshay Gopalakrishnan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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