Calcutta: He has almost given up hope of wearing the India colours again. For him, the Bengal cap inspires a sense of pride and conviction. Laxmi Ratan Shukla, one of the best all-rounders in the domestic circuit, on Thursday proved yet again that he could still turn a match on its head.
Shukla's first five-wicket haul and astute leadership helped Bengal beat Odisha by 11 runs in their Vijay Hazare Trophy zonal-leg opener at the Jadavpur University, Salt Lake campus ground.
Put into bat, Bengal struggled against an Odisha pace attack that made full use of the moisture on the wicket. Apart from the lateral movement, the bounce and carry made the task of the batsmen difficult.
Add to it Odisha's superb fielding, including two superb catches by wicket-keeper Haladhar Das.
It was mainly because of Manoj Tiwary and Wriddhiman Saha and some late-order defiance from Anustup Majumder and Shami Ahmed that Bengal managed to reach 186.
It wasn't the most convincing start to the defending champions' campaign, leaving coach Woorkeri Raman unhappy. "This was a collective failure by our batsmen… The trend has to change overnight," he said.
Bengal managed to make early inroads into the Odisha innings but Govind Podder and captain Biplab Samantaray put up a resistance that very nearly took the game away from the hosts. Ultimately, the Bengal's players' experience and Shukla's ability to provide the vital breakthroughs fetched Bengal four points.
Odisha's Basant Mohanty (4/22) removed the Bengal openers within the first five overs of the innings. Bengal were tottering at 14 for two as Mohanty and Deepak Behera threatened to land a few more blows.
Tiwary (55 off 95 balls, 6x4, 1x6) and Sandipan Das tried to rebuild the innings showing utmost caution. Once Sandipan's patience ran out, Wriddhiman (36 off 38 balls, 4x4, 1x6) forged a 77-run partnership with Tiwary.
Despite being bogged down by a disciplined attack, Tiwary and Wriddhiman showed the inclination to attack once the spinners came on. Both the batsmen were, however, guilty of throwing away their wickets after all the hard work.
The Bengal middle and late-order batsmen failed to show the same application as their inclination to go for the big hits led to their downfall.
Odisha batsmen will also have to take the blame for losing the plot towards the closing stages. Making full use of Bengal's horrible ground fielding, Odisha, at one stage, were in sight of winning with a bonus point.
"They needed 22 runs off 18 balls for the bonus point and we were desperate to stop them from walking away with it. Thankfully, one good spell made the difference," a satisfied Shukla said later.
Samantaray played a useful innings of 51 off 64 balls, counterattacking the bowlers and putting doubts in their minds. If Shami was disappointing, Ashok Dinda (4/48) bowled in the right areas to rock the Odisha top-order.
When Wriddhiman grassed a tough chance off Samantary on 42, it seemed like Bengal had lost the plot. Odisha were comfortably placed at 164 for six at that stage. But once Dinda had Lagnajit Samal caught at short fine leg and Shukla bowled Samantaray through the gate, Bengal crawled back into the reckoning.