Eye on Ranji - IV
In a four-part preview series, ESPNcricinfo profiles the Ranji Trophy Super League teams.
Can Harbhajan Singh bolster Punjab's forces and help them to a good start in the season? Or can Punjab come to Harbhajan's rescue and lead him back to the Indian dressing room soon? That is essentially the plot for Punjab this season. Harbhajan, not favoured by the national selectors, has been sent back to first-class cricket after four years. In 2007 he needed to play just one match to return to the Indian squad. This time, the wait could be a little longer.
But Punjab would not mind the wait. Across his career, whenever Harbhajan found himself in a tight spot, he readily admitted to his shortcomings and recovered immediately by fighting back. Punjab need his leadership dearly also because Pankaj Dharmani, a stalwart and captain of many years, has retired. His departure has left a hole that cannot be fixed so easily. Yet there is hope in the form of Uday Kaul, Mandeep Singh, Sarul Kanwar and Karan Goel. Kaul has been Punjab's best batsman in the last few years and even if he misses the first game or two due to injury, his application has never been in question. It is now for the trio of Mandeep, Kanwar and Goel to prove that they can apply themselves and play as a force.
That is where an aggressive leader like Harbhajan can play a role. Harbhajan recently led Mumbai Indians to the title in the Nokia Champions League Twenty20 in the absence of Sachin Tendulkar. He has also fulfilled his long-standing dream of scoring a Test hundred. A hungry Harbhajan - with bat or ball - is dangerous to the opponents.
Vikram Rathore, Punjab's new coach and former India opener, reckons Harbhajan is in the right place and it would only help Punjab's cause. "It is a great advantage to have Bhajji [Harbhajan]. He will do whatever is needed to get back to the Indian team" Rathore said. "He is a great competitor and plays hard cricket. He is keen to play and perform. With him around, the youngsters can only learn more."
Punjab's Achilles heel is the fast bowling. Luv Ablish, their best fast bowler, twisted his leg days ahead of the first match, and is likely to miss the first two matches. Manpreet Gony has promised plenty but failed to deliver consistently. In 2009-10, when Punjab entered the last-eight stage, Gony and Ablish were in the top-10 bowlers' list. Punjab need their bowlers to persevere in order to build the confidence of the young batting line-up.
What they did last year
They failed to win a single game and finished fifth in Group B. They failed to win their only home game, against Karnataka. They let lightweight opponents like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Orissa sneak out draws despite enjoying the upper-hand in these contests. Their bowling lacked teeth following Ablish's injury at the start of the season. There was only one five-wicket haul in the entire season, with the bowlers' averages resembling that of a batsman in solid touch. The irony was that their batsmen showed no spine except for the pair of Kaul (561 runs) and Kanwar (501 runs). The rest floundered, providing no platform for their bowlers to attack the opposition.
Men to watch
A dashing batsman, who was part of the 2010 Under-19 Indian World Cup squad, Mandeep Singh scored a half-century on Ranji debut against Himachal Pradesh last season. He improvised with 112 against Haryana, narrowly missing another ton in the second innings. He then impressed with a century in the Duleep Trophy semi-finals, with his 114 in the first innings proving vital in North Zone reaching the final. He kicked off this season with 60 in the Irani Trophy. If he can prepare himself mentally for the hard grind in the first-class circuit, Mandeep would be a player to watch for in the next few years.
The big news for Bengal is the return of Sourav Ganguly, the former India captain, who is available for the entire season. How much of an impact Ganguly can make on the field is an open question though, since he has not played much competitive cricket in recent times, but having someone of his stature and experience in the dressing room could have a positive impact on their younger players. "He can be a great help in terms of telling them of how to approach the game and download his experience," WV Raman, the coach, told ESPNcricinfo.
Bengal have won just a single game over the last previous years, while managing to draw 12. In seven games last season, they amassed 2,667 runs for the loss of 62 wickets but conceded 3127 runs and took only 58 wickets. The plethora of flat tracks aside, the numbers suggest the bowling needs improvement. After taking 46 wickets between them in 2009-10, fast bowler Ranadeb Bose and offspinner Saurasish Lahiri managed just 17 in 2010-11. "What we would like to be better at this year is the spin department," Raman said. "If that can happen, we can do far better than what we did last year."
The batting has more of a shine to it, with captain Manoj Tiwary and Wriddhiman Saha leading the way, while former captain Laxmi Ratan Shukla is another consistent contributor. However, Saha has regularly found a place as the back-up wicketkeeper in the India squad, while Tiwary has been part of the one-day squad. If the pair are forced to miss parts of the season while on national duty, Bengal could find themselves struggling again.
Raman said the side needs to be more patient this year and concentrate on retaining their intensity for longer periods in the field. "This is a season where the side has got a fair bit of experience as well as some promising youngsters," Raman said. "They had last season to try and erase whatever fallacies, whatever frailties they had. Now it is payback time for the players who have been given a fair run of chances and have also been persisted with."
What they did last season
Bengal finished sixth in their group, grinding out a series of six mostly high scoring draws. Along the way they were surprised by Super League newcomers Assam, who overhauled their first-innings score of 562 for 6 by amassing 588 for 6 themselves. Then, in their last game against Railways, they folded for 201 and 134 to lose by an innings and 10 runs.
Men to watch
Despite having played in one the recent one-day series against England, Manoj Tiwary will need to make plenty of runs if he is to compete with the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara for a national place. Bengal will also need Ranadeb Bose, who was once considered for India as well, to bounce back from a poor season in which he took only 12 wickets at 51.58.
Inputs from Nagraj Gollapudi and Tariq Engineer