Eye on Ranji - I
In a four-part preview series, ESPNcricinfo profiles the Ranji Trophy Super League teams.
No one expected an inexperienced Baroda side to make the Ranji Trophy final after nine years without the Pathan brothers and Munaf Patel, least of all then coach Mukesh Narula. That they did, and came within touching distance of taking the decisive first-innings lead against a powerful Rajasthan batting line-up, points to the potential in the relatively thin supply-line of one of the four city-based Ranji teams.
While they missed key allrounder Irfan Pathan last season due to injury, they were fortunate to have the services of Yusuf Pathan and Munaf whenever they were free from international duty. The Pathan brothers are available this season but Munaf is out for a couple of months with his injured ankle.
The trio missed the dramatic semi-final that Baroda won at home against Karnataka inside two days on a sharp turner which drew all-round criticism. One of the less strident voices was that of then Karnataka and now Baroda coach Sanath Kumar, who had maintained that a team had to be good enough to tackle all conditions and not blame only the pitch. Sanath has now spent a few months with Baroda, including the Buchi Babu and Syed Mushtaq Ali tournaments, and he said that they have lots of bench strength.
Baroda will be starting with a new opening combination with veteran Connor Williams having retired and the young Jaykishan Kolsawala out with knee trouble. Kedar Devdhar, who had a solid last season at No. 3, will open along with either Aditya Waghmode or Anupam Gupta, who made two centuries in the Buchi Babu tournament. The presence of Ambati Rayudu and Yusuf gives firepower to the middle order.
Irfan will share the new ball with the impressive Murtuja Vahora who took 30 wickets last season. Last year's top wicket-taker Bhargav Bhatt will lead the spin attack. Wicketkeeper Pinal Shah is in his second Ranji season as captain and Sanath said that his control over match situations has improved.
With the added spark that the Pathan brothers provide, Baroda have it in them to go a step further than what they managed against Rajasthan. Sanath's challenge will be to get the rest of the young side to perform at the level it can, something Narula managed capably.
What they did last season
Baroda were the only side apart from Karnataka to have three wins in the league stage, hammering Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh by an innings. In between, they lost from a winning position against Uttar Pradesh and conceded the first-innings lead to Karnataka and Orissa. Munaf's four-for and Devdhar's century got them the decisive lead in the quarter-final against Railways. Vahora's five-for made short work of Karnataka in the first innings before Pinal rose to the occasion with a superb 83, the only fifty of the semi-final, allowing the spinners to take over. The experience of Rajasthan proved too much in the final though.
Men to watch
After his no-show last year, this is a big season for Irfan. He showed glimpses of his once-trademark boomerang shape in to the right-hander during the IPL and did reasonably well in the Mushtaq Ali Twenty20 tournament. But bowling long spells on unresponsive tracks in the longer format will be different. Irfan has spoken about being a touch nervous about the transition as he prepares to play his first first-class game since February 2010. His progress will be closely watched.
Yusuf has lost out to Ravindra Jadeja for the moment in ODIs but has revealed his bigger ambition of playing Tests, saying that "there is more to my batting than just hitting." Despite seven first-class hundreds and an average of 41.38, the overbearing image of Yusuf is that of a man who can take apart attacks only on the odd day. Can he do something to change that image this season?
Vahora has matured enough to be ready for the next level, according to Sanath. Vahora took 30 of his 49 first-class wickets last season, running in hard even in post-tea sessions and pegging batsmen back with pace and bounce. Sanath said his control has developed to the extent that he can now send down eight to ten consecutive yorkers.
Karnataka's glory years in the late 1990s came during a phase when the state was supplying more than its fair share of players to the national side. They then they lapsed into a decade of disappointment. The last two Ranji seasons - a memorable run to the final where they nearly outlasted Mumbai, followed by a semi-final exit on a poor wicket - suggest that Karnataka have turned the corner, but the time has now come to back their resurgence with silverware.
Karnataka's transformation began when they adopted a new direction under coach Sanath Kumar and captain R Vinay Kumar, a move that required some hard decisions including the axing of some senior names. Sanath has now made way for Kartik Jeshwant, but the side's young core remains intact. Vinay, along with fellow seamers Abhimanyu Mithun and S Aravind, have broken into the national side, while Robin Uthappa and Manish Pandey also feature in selection debates. Karnataka continue their thrust for young talent, with KP Appanna taking over the lead spinner's mantle from Sunil Joshi, who retired earlier this year, while Bharat Chipli returns to first-class action after three years.
Joshi was pivotal to Karnataka's cause in 2010, wheeling his way to 32 wickets at 18.90, making him the third-highest wicket-taker of the season. Aravind (26), Mithun (24) and Vinay (19) were also among the wickets, but the batsmen betrayed a nagging inability to score big hundreds. Amit Verma, who was Karnataka's leading scorer, managed only one century though he racked up 652 runs, while the team's highest score all season was Manish Pandey's 171. It was an aspect of their game that worried Sanath, and could hamper them this time around against sides that bat big and look for decisive first-innings leads.
What they did last season
Karnataka's bowling unit sparkled all year, while their batsmen took turns getting the runs. Uthappa's 149 set up a comfortable win against Punjab, before Verma led a second-innings fightback to save the game against Haryana. Pandey and CM Gautam punished Orissa to set up a dominant innings victory, while Stuart Binny was the hero in a low-scoring encounter against Himachal Pradesh. Draws in their last two league games ensured Karnataka were one of only three teams to make the knockouts unbeaten. An all-round effort led by Verma and Joshi helped them brush aside Madhya Pradesh in the quarter-final. And then they slipped on a forgettable strip at the Reliance Stadium in Vadodara.
Eighteen wickets fell on the opening day as Karnataka were rolled over for 107. Joshi scrapped hard with a six-wicket haul to keep Baroda's lead to manageable proportions, but the batsmen fell in a heap in the second innings as well, against Swapnil Singh and Bhargav. Two nightmarish days on a shocking wicket was all it took to undo Karnataka's season, and they will want to be better prepared for such challenges this time around.
Men to watch
One breakthrough season, followed by a consistent one puts Manish Pandey in pole position to break into the national side. Another fruitful year will pitchfork him to the level currently occupied by Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in the pecking order. Pandey's case is strengthened by his IPL exploits and a raft of big scores in the Emerging Players tournament, but he will know that nothing will shine brighter than big hundreds in the Ranji Trophy.
Prior to last season, Uttar Pradesh had made three finals and a semi-final over the five previous years. After last year's slip, though, the winds of change are blowing. Mohammad Kaif, captain for all six of those years, has stepped down. Suresh Raina will now lead the side, although he will also hope that he doesn't do it for too long, and that he is picked for the Tests in Australia. It can only be good for UP either way: if he gets selected, it will only be through making a bucketful of runs for UP, if he doesn't, he will at least be there for the business end of the tournament.
While Raina will strengthen the batting, and Kaif will want to get back to batting form without the pressure of captaincy, UP's strength will continue to remain their bowling. They will miss Praveen Kumar, but will like to think they have one of the best domestic attacks in RP Singh, Sudeep Tyagi, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Piyush Chawla.
The rise of Raina and Praveen, along with a steady support cast including the likes of Kaif, RP Singh and Chawla, has marked the golden age of UP cricket, which started with the title win in 2005-06. Praveen and Raina have hardly looked back since, but RP, Chawla and Kaif have plateaued. This season might be one final opportunity to take an upward turn.
What they did last season
Despite being - on paper - one of the top three sides of their group, despite having secured 14 points from their first four matches, UP failed to make it to the quarter-finals from a group of six. When even a first-innings lead might have been enough in one of the two last matches, they registered just one point. In all they managed just one century, and that too came off the bat of Chawla.
Men to watch
Raina will harbour Test ambitions, RP Singh will eye redemption after the embarrassing Test comeback earlier this year, but it's an even more interesting season for Kaif. The selectors' message has been clear that he is not in their plans, and his own dipping returns haven't helped either. With 203 runs at 22.55 the last season was one of the worst for him. Once upon a time, against better attacks in Test cricket, he averaged nearly 33. There is no captaincy now and even fewer selection anxieties. Can that push him to find a second wind?
Two years of relative satisfaction, during which Saurashtra qualified for the semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy, were blighted by a significant decline in the following two, particularly in 2010-11. A side that came close to being a serious contender for the title slipped to the brink of relegation before it was able to pull itself up and remain in the Super League. Though the pitch at their home ground, the Khandheri Cricket Stadium in Rajkot, has contributed to the regrettable trend of high-scoring draws in the tournament, where first-innings leads are a decisive factor, Saurashtra will hope some more depth in their bowling this year will serve them better. They've roped in left-arm spinner Nayan Doshi, as well as seamer Siddharth Trivedi from Gujarat. The absence of key players - Cheteshwar Pujara and Jaydev Unadkat - was a blow to Saurashtra's chances last year, but their coach Debu Mitra was confident of a better show this time. "I think I have the best available Saurashtra side this year," Mitra told ESPNcricinfo.
Unlike last year, when they played six matches at home, Saurashtra are playing six away games this year and they'll hope it brings in better fortunes this time round as a spate of high-scoring draws hit them hard the previous season. "This year, my team is in good shape," Mitra said. "We played quite a few four-day games in Bangalore, then in Chennai at the Buchi Babu tournament and had a 14-day camp."
What they did last season
Saurashtra had a disappointing season in 2010-11, only managing to stay in the Super League by beating Assam in their final league game in an uncharacteristically low-scoring encounter in Rajkot. They suffered one defeat and played out five draws, four of them in Rajkot. Of the five draws, they conceded a first-innings lead in four matches; the other one was rain-affected. Sagar Jogiyani was their highest run-getter, averaging 41 in seven matches; Kotak was second in line. Backing up Jadeja in the bowling was Kamlesh Makvana, who finished with 17 wickets in five games and played a crucial role in the win over Assam.
Men to watch
The experience of Shitanshu Kotak will be a huge asset but all eyes will be on Cheteshwar Pujara, who has recovered from a knee injury sustained during the IPL. It put him out of action for five months and cost him his place in India's Test side. National selection will be high on his mind as he bats this season. Saurashtra won't have him back in the first round of the tournament but his return could have a major influence on their progress. "Definitely it is a big blow and he's our best batsman," Mitra said.
Also drawing much attention will be the performance of Ravindra Jadeja, who was Saurashtra's highest wicket-taker last season. He's made a name for himself of late in limited-overs cricket for India; how he goes with the bat in the four-day version would be something the national selectors will have their eyes on.
Inputs from Sidharth Monga, Nitin Sundar, Siddhartha Talya and Abhishek Purohit