Mumbai look to carry on a legacy
For all its uncertainty and drama, there are certain instances in sport where the expected almost always happens. Celtic or Rangers normally win the Scottish football title and the Chinese generally win everything in table tennis. If these teams don't win, it is big news. Winning is a formality. In India, Mumbai usually win the Ranji Trophy.
So when the 2004-05 season kicks off tomorrow, with seven Elite Group matches around the country, Mumbai start as strong favourites. History favours them overwhelmingly - 36 titles with their closest rivals winning six. More importantly, they are champions for two seasons running and hardly faced any challenge last time around. Their batsmen cruised along merrily and their bowlers chipped in at the vital moments. They wrapped up the semi-finals within three days and the final was all but over on the second. At the end of it all Chandrakant Pandit, their coach, was talking about the 15-year winning streak from 1959 to 1973.
Another massive advantage that Mumbai have this season is that they play five matches at home. With the most balanced bowling line-up in the country, they usually thrive on the sporting Wankhede wicket - assuming of course that the Test match pitch was an anomaly. Three spinners of varied style and strengths - Sairaj Bahutule, Ramesh Powar and Nilesh Kulkarni - and three medium pacers who can consistently hit the right rhythm make them a formidable combination to face up to. Their batting will revolve around Wasim Jaffer, Amol Muzumdar and Vinod Kambli and they have enough allround strength to call up if needed.
Their first game, though, against Railways in Delhi, will probably be one of their biggest tests. Railways entered the semi-finals last year and relied on the sum being greater than the parts. Sanjay Bangar and Harvinder Singh have international experience while Kulamani Parida, the offspinner, has been on the fringes of national selection for a while.
The other big battle on the opening day will be between Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad at Chennai. Like last season, Tamil Nadu will rely on their high-voltage batting line-up to carry them through, and the first-day collapse in the final would surely rankle. Sadagoppan Ramesh, Sridharan Sriram, Sreedharan Sharath and Hemang Badani form a formidable combination and will have solid back-up in the form of Subramanium Badrinath, who topped the run-charts for them last season, and Dinesh Karthik, the wicketkeeper who slammed crucial hundreds in the semis and finals. Hyderabad don't have too many stars in their team but they will ride on a mix of experience and youth: their captain, Venkatapathy Raju, and Ambati Rayudu, the 19-year old batsman hailed by some as the next great Indian batting star.
It will be interesting to note the progress of Punjab under the guidance of Intikhab Alam, the former Pakistan captain who became the first foreign coach to be in charge of an Indian domestic team. They play their first match against Uttar Pradesh and like last season one would expect their medium pacers to come to the fore.
Delhi and Karnataka were good in patches last season, with a few experienced players disappointing. Both teams begin their campaigns away from home - Karnataka against Bengal and Delhi against Gujarat.
But whatever all these teams do, it will require something special to upset Mumbai's quest for their hat-trick of titles. When Richard Cashman, the manager of the New York Yankees, was asked about the difference between his team and the rest he said, "The only difference is that the Yankees always win." It is a similar story.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is on the staff of Wisden Cricinfo.