Eye on Ranji - 2
It will be fascinating to see whether the Ranji Trophy competition manages to hold relevance in the era of the IPL and Champions League Twenty20. In a four-part preview series, ESPNcricinfo profiles the Super League teams.
Tamil Nadu's emergence as a consistent domestic force has been undermined by their inability to bring home the biggest prize; the last time they won the Ranji Trophy was in 1987-88. Last year, they marched into the knockouts after topping their group, but exited the tournament after conceding a decisive first-innings lead in the quarter-final against Delhi. The outcome would have rankled, given the abundance of talent in the side. Though they operated well as a cohesive unit, the absence of stand-out performers, with bat or ball, hampered them. S Badrinath (599 runs), who topped TN's run-charts was only the ninth highest overall, while Aushik Srinivas' haul of 23 wickets was less than half of table-topper Abhimanyu Mithun's.
Finding batsmen who can bat big, and bowlers who can run through the opposition, will be one of the priorities for the new coaching team that takes over from WV Raman who finished his four-year term last season. This time, the side has done away with the practice of appointing a single coach, and have put PC Prakash and Jayaraman Gokulakrishnan in charge of batting and bowling respectively. Will the specialist approach change TN's fortunes?
Having played most of their league games away from home last year, TN have the luck of the draw going their way this time - six of their seven matches will be played in three Chennai venues. The home advantage will surely add to their potency, but their biggest challenge will be finding the extra gear that teams like Mumbai shift into at the business end of the Ranji Trophy.
What they did last season
TN's strong batting line-up, headed by Badrinath, Arun Karthik and M Vijay, helped them secure the first-innings advantage in their first two games, before the bowlers took charge. R Ashwin served notice of his all-round skills, bagging a five-for in the innings victory against Punjab, and setting up a hard-fought win against Himachal Pradesh with his batting. Srinivas and allrounder C Ganapathy flourished in the middle phase of the season, as TN drew with Orissa and Mumbai, after dominating the match against the eventual champions. Abhinav Mukund's 257 was the highlight as TN's batting machinery got into prime form for the knockouts, amassing 785 in their final group match against Hyderabad.
In the quarter-final, however, TN ran into Delhi left-arm spinner Vikas Mishra after the top three had guided the score to 175 for 2. Srikkanth Anirudha's maiden first-class ton and support from the lower order helped his side finish with 463, but on a flat track at the Palam A Ground, Delhi's middle order had the reserves to get the lead and knock TN out.
Men to watch
Ashwin's exploits last season earned him a chance to shine in the IPL, and an opening into India's limited-overs sides. This year, he has a chance to convince the selectors that he has the skills for Test cricket. The emergence of Suresh Raina and Cheteshwar Pujara has put Badrinath on the fringes of the Test side once again, and he will be hungry to force his way back into the frame, as will Dinesh Karthik. This season could be the big break for Arun Karthik and Abhinav Mukund, while left-arm spinner Srinivas will strive to repeat his success from 2009-10.
For a side that pleasantly surprised everyone with three finals - and two titles - in five years during the early 2000s, Railways have tapered off lately, fighting back from relegation, and then settling for middle-of-the-table performances. That they are a side always struggling to retain players, many of whom prefer to turn out for their state sides rather than their employers, hasn't helped. That they are in the same group this year as heavyweights Mumbai, Delhi and Tamil Nadu will certainly not make their task any easier.
Railways continue to be heavily reliant on the batting of Sanjay Bangar, Yere Goud and TP Singh. Bangar and Goud are past 38 years, and TP is pushing 33. However, Faiz Fazal, the 25-year old former Vidarbha captain and Rajasthan Royals opener, has been a consistent performer over the past two seasons, and V Cheluvaraj showed promise last year in only his second first-class season, his 372 runs the third-highest for Railways in the tournament.
It's the bowling that is the bigger worry. Murali Kartik, the veteran left-arm spinner, was the only specialist bowler to play all seven games last year. And even his 17 wickets meant that 29 bowlers were ahead of him in the wickets list. Bangar chipped in with his medium-pace, but there was hardly any support from the others, apart from fast bowler Shailender Gehlot. The lack of a reliable new-ball pair means Bangar opens the bowling more often than not.
Last season, Kulamani Parida, the offspinner, was barred from bowling during the opening match against Tamil Nadu, as his action came under scrutiny after 13 seasons in first-class cricket. He hasn't played after that, further denting Railways' thin bowling resources that managed only 68 victims, the second-least after Maharashtra. Railways coach Abhay Sharma said that they have worked hard on Parida's action during the off-season. "We will have trials with officials before our first game (against Gujarat) and are hoping for the best." If Parida - who has 320 first-class wickets - is allowed to bowl, it will be a huge boost for his side.
What they did last season
A fourth place finish among eight teams was an improvement over their 2008-09 performance by one position. They conceded the first-innings lead in two of their first four games, and were unfortunately thwarted in their attempt to gain it by bad light and rain in the other two. Though they came back strongly, thrashing Gujarat by an innings, and hanging on to the lead against Hyderabad, it was too late by then. Another lead-conceding show against Punjab rounded off a middling tournament for them.
Men to watch
M Suresh, the legspinning allrounder, topped the batting averages for Railways last year. However, his legspin brought him only one wicket in five games, and if he can step up his bowling a notch, the former Andhra player and Railways employee could reduce Bangar's burden on both fronts.
With three half-centuries, including a career-best 93, opener Cheluvaraj gave his side several solid starts and also kept wickets in three matches. As the old guard of Bangar and Goud approach the end of their careers, the 24-year old Cheluvaraj will need to convert the fifties into big scores. If he can do that, the transition for Railways, whenever it happens, will be that much smoother.
Punjab have won the Ranji Trophy only once, in 1992-93, and have been runners-up twice since then, in 1994-95 and 2004-05 - a record they are desperate to improve upon. In the season before last, Punjab were knocked out in the group stages. In 2009-10, they lost out in the quarter-finals.
Punjab will be led by 36-year-old Pankaj Dharmani, who replaced Ankur Kakkar as captain mid-way through 2009-10 following an innings defeat to Tamil Nadu. Crucially, they have Yuvraj Singh in their ranks and he is determined to force his way back into the Test side. Yuvraj will fortify a batting line-up that struggled last season. "Green-tops," Bhupinder Singh, Punjab's coach, said were the reason his batsmen fared worse than his bowlers. "Batting was quite difficult. Otherwise, batting is our strength."
Punjab have been working with Adrian Dias, the trainer who was with the Kings XI Punjab, during the off season and Bhupinder believed their improved fitness will prevent breakdowns during the course of 2010-11. That, however, hasn't prevented a problem or two cropping up at the start. Love Ablish, their premier bowler, suffered a hairline fracture four days ago and will take a week or so to recover. Manpreet Gony, another key bowler in 2009-10, hasn't been selected for the first two games, presumably on form. He will be back, though, according to Bhupinder.
What they did last season
Punjab finished second, behind Tamil Nadu, in their group, winning two matches outright, drawing four and losing one. They earned 19 points, the same as eventual winners Mumbai, but were eliminated in the quarter-final after Karnataka earned first-innings points in another drawn contest. The result was an improvement from the 2008-09 season, when Punjab finished fifth in their group.
Punjab's batting order failed to amass totals that would heap pressure on the opposition and they managed to score more than 400 only twice - against Gujarat and Railways. Their highest run-scorer, Uday Kaul, made 582 runs in 14 innings and was tenth on the list of top run-getters for the season. Their next best batsmen Ravi Inder Singh, Pankaj Dharmani and Vishwas Bhalla were 25th, 41st and 42nd.
Their bowlers fared better, with medium-pacers Ablish and Gony finishing third and seventh on the wicket-takers chart. Ablish took 36 wickets at 23.88 apiece, while Gony claimed 31 at an average of 19.29. They were among only six bowlers to have taken ten-wicket hauls in the previous season.
Men to watch
Yuvraj is presently out of the Test side, having been overtaken by M Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara and Suresh Raina, and has to fight his way back. If Yuvraj succeeds, Punjab will also benefit immensely in their pursuit of a knock-out berth. He's already scored a blistering double-century in the Irani Cup and a few teams could suffer from similar onslaughts during the season.
Bhupinder said that the two legspinners - Sarabjit Ladda and Rahul Sharma - were different enough for Punjab to consider playing both if the conditions warranted it. Rajwinder Singh, a 21-year old left-arm spinner who's played only one first-class game, is also one to watch out for. There are two uncapped players in Punjab's squad for the first two matches of the season - medium-pacer Navdeep Singh from Jalandhar and opener Sarul Kanwar from Chandigarh.
Assam are back in elite company for the first time since they were relegated in 2004-05. Their first brush with the Super League came last year itself, when they came face to face with Uttar Pradesh in the quarter-final. They put up a fight reaching 259 for 8 in the last innings, chasing 337, but ran out of time and lost of the basis of the first-innings deficit.
The batting part of their success was built on the contributions from Dheeraj Jadhav, the guest player from Maharashtra. By the time Amol Muzumdar, their captain and guest player from Mumbai, started contributing meaningful runs, an unbeaten century in the quarter-final, it was perhaps too late. Assam will rely on both of them, and on the other outsider S Sriram, the doughty left-handed allrounder, but they will feel a desperate need to shrug off the image of having made it to the Super League riding on outsiders' performances.
Abu Nechim Ahmed and offspinner Arlen Konwar counter that image partly. They picked up 26 wickets each last season at averages of 16 and 17 respectively. Nechim, though, is likely to miss the first two games this season, recovering from a hand injury. That will put extra pressure on Konwar, who will have to lead the attack, that too against stronger batting line-ups than he is used to bowling to.
Assam also have just one home game in the league stages, which well and truly marks them as underdogs.
What they did last season
They hardly looked like contenders in the first quarter of the last season. Rajasthan beat them outright, their Goa game got washed out, and against Jharkhand they were reduced to 99 for 9 in the second innings, but just about got away with first-innings points.
In the later stages, though, Jadhav and Nechim turned it on. Jadhav scored a century, and Nechim took 10 in beating Tripura outright. Another century from Jadhav and a three-wicket haul from Nechim secured a first-innings lead against Vidarbha, and with that a place in the Plate league semi-final.
Konwar and Sairaj Bahutule this time provided the wickets to go with Jadhav's runs as Assam beat Andhra outright to book their ticket in the big league.
Men to watch out for
Assam will look to Jadhav to carry the batting once again, and Konwar will be the main man with the ball in Nechim's absence. Muzumdar,retained as captain, will have a point or two to prove, especially when he plays his former Ranji side, Mumbai.