Eye on Ranji - 4
The Ranji Trophy, India's premier domestic competition, is moving into its 76th year and it will be interesting to see whether this age-old competition manages to hold relevance in the era of the IPL and Champion League Twenty20. In a four-part preview series, Cricinfo profiles the Super League teams.
Karnataka has had an eventful off-season. The potentially trendsetting Karnataka Premier League had a promising debut season, while the state selectors (including former internationals Syed Kirmani and Raghuram Bhat) quit after their integrity was questioned by the state association's president when they named the squad for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in September (subsequently their resignations were taken back ten days ago) . Further, there is still no clarity over who will be Karnataka's full-time captain once Rahul Dravid departs for national duty.
On the field, the Ranji Trophy title has proved elusive for a full decade after a period of dominance in the late 90s. Last season, the batting was too dependent on Robin Uthappa (Dravid was rarely available) as the other batsmen showed little consistency. It was a similar story in the bowling where veteran left-arm spinner Sunil Joshi, now nearly 40, and fast bowler Vinay Kumar had little support.
New coach Sanath Kumar, who takes over from Vijay Bharadwaj, needs to get promising young batsmen - Manish Pandey, KB Pawan, M Gautam and Ryan Ninan (who played for Goa last season) - to raise their game. Fast bowler NC Aiyappa has been axed after a poor season (six matches, ten wickets at 40.40), giving the likes of S Aravind and Abhimanyu Mithun a chance to shine.
One of Karnataka's strengths is that they have a lot of allrounders, adding plenty of depth to the batting. Joshi, C Raghu and Stuart Binny - back after quitting the ICL - are bonafide allrounders while bowlers Vinay and B Akhil have also proved handy with the bat. Another positive is that they have Dravid leading the side for the first two matches, which are against possibly the strongest teams in Karnataka's group - Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. With their conquerors from the previous season, Saurashtra, and Bengal, who have just made it back to the Super League, also in their pool Karnataka have to be at their best to make it to the quarter-finals.
What they did last year
It was, at best, a satisfactory season for Karnataka. Things seemed to be going well in the quarter-final against Saurashtra when they gained a big first-innings cushion, but they were undone by the old-hand and young-gun combination of Shitanshu Kotak and Cheteshwar Pujara, who orchestrated a tough chase of 325.
Before that reverse, though, they were unbeaten. They opened the campaign with a couple of unconvincing draws against Railways and Tamil Nadu, conceding the crucial first-innings lead in both matches. They got back on track with an easy win against lightweights Andhra in Mysore, and a resounding ten-wicket victory against Baroda. The game against Uttar Pradesh was the only time they crossed the 400-mark, but that was not enough to gain first-innings point as the match petered out into a high-scoring draw. A 155-run win against Maharashtra secured a place in the quarter-finals, beyond which they couldn't progress.
Men to watch
As in the previous season, Uthappa will get plenty of attention as he tries to force his way back into the national reckoning. The spotlight will also be on two other upcoming players who have proved their worth mainly in Twenty20s so far: Pandey and the ICL returnee Binny. A first-class average of 27 with no centuries isn't a great record, but that hasn't stopped Pandey from becoming something of a household name after his exploits in the IPL. This season will test whether he can translate his form from slam-bang cricket to the four-day game. As for Binny, he was one of the most impressive Indian cricketers in the ICL, and that has now earned him a contract with the Mumbai Indians. He has done little of note in his 18 first-class matches, though. How he fares over the next few months will determine whether he will be pigeonholed as a Twenty20 specialist or not.
Drama thy name is Bengal. A return to the top flight after one season in the lower division has not been without its share of controversies. The contentious issue of Laxmi Ratan Shukla being retained as captain this season pales in comparison to the difference of opinions between the selectors while choosing the best available talent. After the selection meeting last Tuesday was postponed due to personality clash between the selectors, the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) president Jagmohan Dalmiya held sway at the sitting the following day to bring about a consensus.
Little wonder then that the CAB has named a 15-member Bengal squad for just the first game against Maharashtra in Pune. And with every player being handed over a sheet containing contact numbers of their team-mates to improve communication among themselves, the message is loud and clear after their horrendous performance in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
They took a step in the right direction by entering the finals of the Vijay Hazare Trophy earlier this year. Also, the ICL players have returned, there is a new coach in Roger Binny and a new chairman of selectors in Sambaran Banerjee. Will Bengal recapture their lost glory?
What they did last season
With three wins and two draws, Bengal established their supremacy at the top of Group B in the Plate League. Their biggest triumph was the innings-and-226-run demolition of Services in Kolkata. Ranadeb Bose's six-wicket haul gave Bengal the first-innings lead against Goa in the Plate League semi-final, which was enough to ensure a Super League quarter-final berth. But Tamil Nadu were always going to be formidable opponents, and despite a first-innings lead courtesy Manoj Tiwary's century, they lost by eight wickets.
Men to watch
Wriddhiman Saha has made the most of the opportunity with Bengal after Deep Dasgupta's exodus to the ICL. The journey that began in November 27 is heading in the right direction, even as Dasgupta makes his return following the BCCI's amnesty offer. Saha was Bengal's top scorer in the Plate League last year with 428 runs from six matches at 53.50 that included a brilliant 159 against Vidarbha. The performances had even led the selectors to flirt with the possibility of naming him the captain this season. His talent has been endorsed by John Buchanan, Ricky Ponting and the state's own Sourav Ganguly, who reckons that Saha is the next big thing in Bengal cricket. A successful stint in the IPL with the Kolkata Knight Riders was followed by an India A call-up and the 25-year-old from Shaktigarh, Burdwan is one to watch out for in the future.
Behind Saha, with 308 runs at 38.50 in the last year's campaign, was Tiwary, who is perhaps Bengal's most consistent batsman in recent years. He was also the fourth-highest run-getter in the Ranji Trophy one-dayers last season, scoring 373 runs at 74.60. Bengal will certainly hope that this season turns out to be like the one he had a couple of years ago, when he averaged over 90.
Bose and Ashok Dinda continue to toil hard for Bengal, despite their spat during the Vijay Hazare Trophy, when Dinda was fined Rs 10,000 by the CAB. Bose and Dinda shared 61 wickets to become the third and fourth-highest wicket-takers in the Plate League last season and were the biggest factor in Bengal's quick return to the top division.
"No one used to bother about Saurashtra in the past," says Shitanshu Kotak, their most senior player. "Now they sit up and take notice, they think this team can beat us. It feels great."
Saurashtra, one of the unfancied teams in the circuit, surprised many by reaching the semi-finals in the last two years. Their 2007-08 campaign gave them the belief that they no longer need to fear the good teams and the last year's efforts showed everybody else that Saurashtra are here to stay. They will face a big hurdle this year with the absence of Ravindra Jadeja, away playing for India, as he shone with both bat and ball last season.
What they did last year
Their batsmen, led by Cheteshwar Pujara, came to the party on home grounds in Saurashtra to take them to the knock-out stage. In the quarterfinal against Karnataka, who had Rahul Dravid, they looked down and out after yielding 114-run lead in the first innings. But Sandeep Jobanputra and Ravindra Jadeja, the seam-spin combo, bundled out Karnataka for 208 in the second innings before Pujara (112) and Kotak (87) helped them chased down 325. However, Wasim Jaffer hit a triple century in the semi-final to help take Mumbai the first-innings lead and to end Saurashtra's campaign.
Men to watch
Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja led with the bat, amassing 906 and 739 runs and were well supported by Kotak and the two openers Chirag Pathak and Bhushan Chauhan. Ravindra Jadeja led their bowling with 42 wickets at 19.92 but he will be missing this season due to India duty. In his absence, Jobanputra and Balkrishna Jadeja will have to share the burden in the bowling department.
This could be the year of consolidation for this young squad, whose average age is 21 and features only two 25-plus players. Last year Maharashtra appointed a new coach in the Australian Shaun Williams and gave berths to ten uncapped players in the squad. Twelve months on both the coach and team have a better understanding about the goals and challenges ahead and how best to capture them.
Willams is unwilling to stick the 'inexperienced' tag up his players' sleeves anymore and instead wants them to step up to the next level. The players seem to have read their coach's message clearly as they bounced back strongly in the West Zone leg of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in October. Having lost the first game against Gujarat, Maharashtra hit back strongly by beating three formidable opponents - Baroda, Mumbai and Saurashtra - to advance into the knockout round. The challenge now is to come up with strong, solid and consistent performances.
Even if their success came in a Twenty20 format it still is an encouraging sign and a pointer to the progress being made. Maharashtra continue to be a developing team whose nucleus remains the quartet of Kedar Jadhav, Amey Shrikhande, Harshad Khadiwale (in the batting department) and Samad Fallah leading the bowling attack. Last year Maharashtra suffered the absence of a quality spinner despite the presence of the Bangladeshi left-armer Enamul Haq jnr, who failed to live up to the expectations. Kiran Adhav, another left-armer, and Ganesh Gaikwad, an offspinner, have done well in the pre-season games and could play a key role considering the fact that four of the six league matches will be held in Pune, the team's home base.
Maharashtra did not have an off season as they played home-and-away encounters against emerging squads in Bangladesh and Australia. Players, having gained vital exposure against quality opposition, would now be looking forward to push Maharashtra to the next level.
What they did last year
Nothing spectacular. In fact, they were only in the news when the Tamil Nadu opening pair of Abhinav Mukund and M Vijay fell short of breaking the Ranji Trophy record for the opening partnership against them. Their 462 was two runs short of Ravi Sehgal and Raman Lamba's 464 which came in the clash between Delhi and Himachal Pradesh in 1994-95.
Men to watch
Jadhav, Shrikhande, Khadiwale and Fallah remain the catalysts. Jadhav is the pivot in the middle order and was the ninth highest run-getter in the Super League (651 runs in 6 matches) and Shrikhande was No. 13 (571 runs in 6 matches). Fallah, a left-arm swing bowler, is of average build, not particularly tall but his strength lies in his ability to move the ball in the air. Last season he was the highest wicket-taker in West Zone at the end of the league phase with four five-fors the highest number by any bowler till Dhawal Kulkarni equalled his mark in the final. In the final count Fallah stood No. 8 on the wickets' list with 33 victims. Khadiwale, 20, is a hard-hitting opening batsman and got a half-century in the Challenger Trophy for Indian Red.