Searching for the highest honour
The Ranji Trophy begins on November 23 and Cricinfo previews the teams in the Elite Group: their prospects, the form guide and the men to watch out for.
Bengal, one of the most improved teams last season after finishing as runners-up, will be the team to watch this time around. While last year's champions Uttar Pradesh rose in a more mercurial manner, Bengal's ascendancy suggested their best was yet to come. Sourav Ganguly captaining the side provides all the more reasons to follow their progress.
The team's core comprises proven performers at the domestic level, though none of them are even close to national selection. Subhomoy Das, Arindam Das, and Abhishek Jhunjhunwala formed the strongest top order last season. A notable and most decisive exclusion from mid-way last season was that of Devang Gandhi, the former Indian opener, and the confidence shown in younger players paid off. The middle order has an experienced, almost veteran, look: Ganguly, Rohan Gavaskar, Deep Dasgupta and Laxmi Ratan Shukla. Ganguly will be expected to add a dash of flair, something Bengal lacked last year, with both his captaincy and batting.
In Shib Shankar Paul and Ranadeb Bose Bengal have an opening bowling pair who can prove a handful. Offspinner Saurashish Lahiri can be a tricky customer on a wearing track and his development as a late-order batsman makes him a handy allrounder. The discipline that the team acquired last season can be attributed to Paras Mhambrey, the former Indian medium-pacer, whose emphasis on fitness and discipline has paid dividends. Bengal are pitted in Group B of the Super League, the tougher of the two groups consisting of Mumbai, Maharashtra, Hyderabad and Punjab - teams capable of beating any side on their day.
What they did last season
Bengal lost the final of the Ranji Trophy on the basis of first-innings points. The first-innings contest was a tense one and they fell short of UP's 387 by 14 runs. After starting off the season well with first-innings points against Maharashtra and an outright win against Delhi, they lost their way in the middle stages. Having lost to Tamil Nadu in the sixth round, Bengal needed to win the last match against Railways. That's when they stood up to the challenge and beat Railways outright at home to march into the semi-finals. In a superlative performance on a flat Kolkata wicket, Paul restricted a strong Baroda side to 241 in the semi-finals. After which Bengal's batsmen plundered 619 to move to the finals. (Click here for Bengal's batting and bowling stats last season.)
One to watch
There's no way we can ignore him and if Ganguly does manage some exceptional performances, there's a small chance that we may not see him for the entire Ranji season. He's already scored one century in a Duleep Trophy match; he has agreed to lead Bengal and is looking forward to the season. He, more than anyone else, will know this is his last chance to put up a consistent performance and make a way back. Ganguly, when cornered, does make for compelling viewing. If you're looking for drama, look no further.
There was a time in the late '90s when Karnataka was responsible for half the players in the Indian side but the last few years have seen a steady decline in their numbers. The recent retirement of Vijay Bharadwaj, the former Indian batsmen who was one of the mainstays of the Karnataka middle order, will leave a void. The bigger blow, though, was the news of Dodda Ganesh, their opening bowler, shifting to Goa. The emphasis on youth has produced a few results - with players like Bharat Chipli, C Raghu and Vinay Kumar emerging with credit - but Karnataka will need their batting line-up to deliver if they harbour hopes of entering the last four, a feat they last managed back in 2000.
For a side that prides itself on producing quality batsmen by the bushels, the last few seasons have been a forgettable phase. The stagnation of Barrington Rowland, an opening batsman who moulded his game on a solid technique, and the inability to unearth any other grafters has hit Karnataka hard. The return of Yere Goud couldn't have come at a better time for dashing batsmen like Robin Uthappa and Chipli will have his calm presence, almost adhesively sticking to the crease and building determined innings.
"We have worked very hard on various aspects like fielding and physical strength," Venkatesh Prasad, the former Indian opening bowler and current Karnataka coach, told Cricinfo. "As far as talent goes, we have extraordinary potential. We haven't been able to live up to it probably because collective effort wasn't there. If we have to succeed, we have to be together, perform together and take responsibility. Most of our matches are away but it's not a disadvantage. This is a true test of character. They are all very talented cricketers. It depends on how they adapt to various challenges and conditions."
What they did last season
Four draws and two victories gave Karnataka a good chance of qualifying for the semi-finals but a first-day collapse in the final league game against Gujarat ended their hopes. Rain ruined their vital clash against Tamil Nadu and with just one batsman (Chipli) managing a hundred they lost out on first-innings points in two games. Kumar and Sunil Joshi, the former Indian left-arm spinner, carried the bowling - with 41 wickets between them - but question marks remained over the consistency of the support cast. Karnataka's batsmen can point to 12 fifties but there's no way you're going to win a Ranji Trophy without scoring big, and regularly. Click here for Karnataka's batting and bowling stats last season
Men to watch
In Chipli and Vinay Kumar, Karnataka have two emerging talents who've shown the ability to stand up when it counts. In only his second game against Bengal last season, Chipli smashed 15 fours and three sixes against a quality Bengal attack to bring up a fine century on debut. His aggressive instincts worked well at the top of the order, especially when his opening partner Robin Uthappa also got going. Kumar's nippy medium-pace troubled a number of teams and his ability to generate extra pace once in a while could prove crucial. In Ganesh's absence, he'll have to shoulder a larger burden and take all precautions against injury.
Andhra have never made it to a Ranji Trophy final, despite possessing some talented individuals. Grouped with Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the South zone - before the Elite and Plate format began four years back - Andhra, along with Kerala, were the perennial whipping boys. MSK Prasad was the first Andhra player to represent India - against New Zealand in 1999 - but a host of talented youngsters have emerged recently. The Rao brothers - Venugopal and Gyaneswara - have acquitted themselves well at the India Under-19 level and in Kalyankrishna and Lakshman Kishore they have bowlers with a bright future. Their home games are played on largely attritional surfaces - encouraging draws rather than outright results - and the lack of bench strength often leave them exposed.
What they did last season:
Andhra's cricket last year may well be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Ambati Rayadu, who switched from Hyderabad to Andhra at the start of the season, was walking off after being dismissed when Arjun Yadav, the opposing captain, let fly a volley of abuses and ungentlemanly gestures before uprooting a stump and tried to hit him. The timely intervention by the umpires pacified the players but the fisticuffs were enough for the match to be called off. That sad scene aside, Andhra managed just one win in six games, a poor performance that led to their exclusion from the semi-final round. MSK Prasad, the former India wicketkeeper, and Rayudu were Andhra's highest run-scorers last season, though averages in the mid to high 30's were disappointing. There were no hundreds all season, and the highest wicket-taker was Syed Sahabuddin, a right-arm medium pacer, with 32 victims. (Click here for Andhra's batting and bowling stats last season.)
Men to watch:
Venugopal Rao, the middle-order batsman, had an average last season but his experience with the national side puts added pressure on him. With Yuvraj Singh's immediate future uncertain and Suresh Raina struggling at the highest level, there may be a spot up for grabs in the Indian middle order. Runs from Venugopal will definitely boost his chances of a recall. With no big success stories in their roster at the moment - Rayudu shifted back to Hyderabad after one season - Andhra cricket fans will hope Venugopal comes good, as batsman, part-time bowler, and captain.