Varun Shetty in Kolkata

At one point on Sunday, the broadcast displayed a graphic of Bengal’s top wicket-takers in the last 10 seasons. The most conspicuous piece of information was that for six seasons in a row before this one, it was the same man – Ashok Dinda, who was axed from the team for “indiscipline” and has played only one match in 2019-20.

Consider that, and then the fact that in two-and-a-half months of Ranji cricket this season, across ten matches, not a single team has managed to score more than 250 in an innings against Bengal. Despite the absence of their foremost bowler – discounting Mohammed Shami who has played one Bengal match since January 2018 – Bengal have managed to be among the best bowling line-ups in the competition.

Ishan Porel, who has worked rigorously to lose the “medium-fast” tag, and is the youngest of the bowlers at 21, is effectively the leader of the attack now. After his five-wicket haul on Sunday, he said there was never any pressure to fill Dinda’s shoes.

“There is no such pressure on me because we have been bowling well [together],” Porel said. “If you see the Indian team’s attack, they generally back each other and applaud each other’s performances. The same thing we are doing here and we are getting success. The hard work we have put in over the last three or four months and before the season – those things are working in the match.”

In the lead-up to the semi-final against Karnataka, coach-cum-mentor Arun Lal had repeatedly reinforced his belief that Bengal were favourites despite the presence of batsmen like KL Rahul, Manish Pandey, and Karun Nair in the opposition. That was rooted somewhat in the reality that Karnataka’s batsmen have made only one century between them all season, with only one of them averaging more than 40. But it was also a nod to Bengal’s bowling this season, particularly to their budding new combination of fast bowlers, who took all of 35.2 overs to bowl Karnataka out for 122 and grab a lead of 190 on day two.

Alongside Porel, who has only played five matches in the season due to India A commitments, are 26-year-old Mukesh Kumar, and 23-year-old Akash Deep who has just made the step up from Under-23 cricket this season. Each of them has taken at least 20 wickets this season, and the dynamics of their partnership was in full display.

The surface for this fixture, like a typical green wicket, is most rewarding when the bowling lengths are full. Porel was relentless in this regard with the new ball, and as someone who can swing the ball at a good pace, he caused immediate damage with the early wickets of R Samarth and Nair, getting them to push well in front of their bodies. The consistency was particularly impressive coming from a tall man whose natural length is just short of a good length. In contrast, Prasidh Krishna, a similar type of bowler, with similar height, hasn’t been as effective for Karnataka in the match.

Bowling with him were Kumar, who held one end up by bowling 14 of the first 29 overs at a stretch, and Akash, who bowled in small, boisterous bursts to trouble batsmen with extra skid off the pitch. For bowlers of varying styles and strengths, their attacking plans stayed identical to the frontline batsmen, and they only switched to bodyline when the lower-order was exposed. Equally impressively, they got through two full hours’ work with only the lunch break to give them any rest.

Porel has bowled, on average, approximately 24 overs per match this season; Mukesh is second with approximately 21 per match, and Akash averages just about 17 per match. All of them average more than left-arm spinner Shahbaz Ahmed (just over 16 per match), who is Bengal’s highest wicket-taker for the season with 30 wickets, and offspinner Arnab Nandi (just over 13 per match) who are the other bowlers who’ve bowled more than 100 overs.

“Before the season, we’ve run a lot. In a week there has been four to five sessions of running, and two-three days of strength [training],” Porel said, describing the routine that is helping him stay fast while retaining control, adding that the prospect of missing a gym session has almost become unthinkable, to the point that he was headed for one at the end of day’s play.

All three fast bowlers’ fitness levels is the main reason for their consistency. But they do not lack for tactical nous either. Porel and Mukesh had largely attacked the stumps while bowling to Rahul and No. 4 KV Siddharth, who briefly stabilised Karnataka’s innings. After getting through the tough examination, Siddharth was lulled into chasing a drive outside off by Akash in his first over, and edged to slip.

At the same time, Mukesh changed ends after a wicketless first spell, to the side from where he would dismiss both Rahul and Pandey with persistent fourth-stump lines. When the left-handed Devdutt Padikkal came in, Porel got him first over of a new spell by creating an angle from over the wicket. And in his next, he created the same angle by going around the wicket to get right-handed Sharath Srinivas to edge to slip. During the end, Akash set K Gowtham up to ramp one to third man.

From Porel’s assessment of it, all that was a fairly straightforward day. “When we get the new ball, we go for the kill,” he said about the roles each of them decides to play. “But when it’s not happening, we try to bowl in partnerships so that we do not leak too many runs. So the main criteria is to not give away easy runs and to maintain the pressure and the plans we make during the video sessions.

“We were happy to see KL Rahul batting on 23 playing 73 balls [26 off 67], because if you’re not bowling well, KL Rahul would have been on 50. So we’re quite happy.”

Not long after those bowling graphics were shown on TV, Porel was having caps and pens thrown at him at the fine leg boundary – for autographs he was more than happy to give. Every time he returned to that corner, he was drawing cheers of the sort only veteran Manoj Tiwary has elicited through the game. He is strongly poised to be the next big bowling name for Bengal; but in the larger scheme, a young pace attack, and an impressive spin-bowling allrounder will excite Bengal even more. Title-winning teams are built with bowling strength, and after quite a while, it seems like Bengal can depend on more than just one name.

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