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Sidharth Monga and Anand Vasu
November 20, 2006
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.
Any premiership coach will tell you the season after winning the championship is the toughest. Uttar Pradesh should keep that in mind, especially because their success was built around natural talent and not systems, unorthodox methods and not planning. Last season turned into a fairytale where they surprised everybody and probably themselves too. Mohammad Kaif, their captain for the latter half of the season, conjured up innovative ways to stun team after team, and led them to their first Ranji Trophy title. Many teams will anticipate their out-of-the-box strategies and moreover, the lead cast from 2005-06 - Kaif and Suresh Raina currently in South Africa - will miss at least the start of the season.
UP will once again depend on youth, despite having the grand old trinity of Ashish Winston Zaidi, Gyanendra Pandey, and Rizwan Shamshad. Their bowling looks stronger than last year with Rudra Pratap Singh adding variety to a line-up that includes Shalabh Srivastava, Praveen Kumar, and Piyush Chawla. Kumar's ability to play cameos anywhere in the order - as he did last season - will continue to be a bonus.
The hostel system - a unique method of nurturing school kids - continues to churn out a major chunk of their talent and if UP can add a modicum of method to their resources, they will be the team to beat at the business end of the season.
What they did last season
From having four points after four matches and facing relegation, UP produced a spectacular turnaround to beat Hyderabad, Andhra, and Mumbai to reach the final. They continued their surprise-tactics in the title clash as well and opened the batting with Kumar, a strategy that proved crucial to the final outcome. Kumar responded with an upper-cut off his first ball and scored 48 off 55 balls, an innings which demoralised Bengal's bowlers. They claimed the trophy on the basis of their first-innings lead. Raina, with 620 runs at 68.88 was third on the overall run-scorers' list; Kumar, with 41 wickets at 23.97, was second in the charts and he also scored 368 runs. The duo, along with Chawla, was among three of the top performers of the Ranji trophy last season.
Men to watch
RP Singh will have the most at stake. He's the closest to national selection as far as the World Cup goes and a smashing start to the season could pave a way for his comeback. India will not be playing home Tests before the end of the Ranji season and that also gives Chawla another complete season to develop his skills and prove that he is indeed India's next quality spinner. Another promising young batsman is left-hand opener and former U-19 captain, Ravikant Shukla.
Baroda, never one of the fancied teams from West Zone, have slowly but steadily built a team that must be taken seriously at all levels. Yet, as is so often the case, all the good work has been undone by forces beyond the control of the team management and the Baroda Cricket Association. Irfan Pathan, one of Baroda's key players, is unavailable to them because of India duties, and Zaheer Khan, who has been a stand-out performer at the domestic level, has moved to Mumbai.
Instead of moaning about what might have been, Dashrat Pardeshi, the former Baroda left-arm spinner and currently chairman of the selection committee, is looking at kick-starting the rebuilding process, and using this as an opportunity to strengthen other areas of his team. "If you go into the past Zaheer [Khan] was our main strike weapon, along with Rakesh Patel," he told Cricinfo. "Our bowling strength in the last five years has depended on medium-pacers, and they have proved their worth. Now that this is weakened we are strengthening the batting and spinning departments."
Pardeshi went on to make a critical point. "Selection on potential and future prospects is fine at the Under-19 level. But at this level you have to take into account more than that," he explained. "Now that the money factor comes into it as well - the players are paid well for each Ranji match, you have to take into account performances in local tournaments, past Ranji matches and other important matches, not just potential." With this in mind Baroda are looking to pack their team with batsmen and allrounders.
What they did last season
Having topped their group in the league phase of the Ranji Trophy with 19 points, Baroda went into their semifinal against Bengal, at Kolkata, with high hopes. But their batsmen failed in the first innings, with only a century from Kiran Powar pushing the score up to 241. Bengal responded with a mammoth 619 - Subhomoy Das, Deep Dasgupta and Lakshmi Rattan Shukla all scoring hundreds, ending the match as a contest. Baroda's batting once again let them down in the second innings, and when the match ended they were on 252 for 8 and lucky not to have been beaten outright.
Men to watch
With their team weakened Baroda have looked to induct players from the Under-22 level. These include Ketan Panchal and Pinal Shah, the wicketkeeper, who has already played for India U-19. Broadly, Baroda have gone in for a flavour of youth, but their core still remains the veterans - Jacob Martin and Connor Williams, the top-order batsmen, and the likes of Ajit Bhoite. With Ashok Mankad, that wily old fox, as coach, you can expect that no team will take Baroda lightly and get away with it.
Mumbai have won the Ranji Trophy so many times more than anyone else that it is difficult not to peg them as one of the favourites. Amol Muzumdar, a veteran of 13 domestic seasons, has been chosen to lead this season, in place of Nilesh Kulkarni, the left-arm spinner, who will focus on his bowling.
Mumbai have a new coach as well. Pravin Amre is well aware of the modern game and its demands, while being firmly rooted in the old style of Mumbai cricket. In recent years there has been talk of a decline in the lofty standards of Mumbai batsmanship - built on the premise that you put an extremely high premium on your wicket. It is this attitude, the khadoos mentality, that Amre is aiming to re-instill in this team. "See any team at the start of the season begins with an aim of winning the Ranji Trophy. It's no different with us," Amre told Cricinfo. "What makes me really positive is the fact that the selectors, the captain and the coach are all working in one direction. While we're looking at developing youngsters and promoting them we're also taking into account the important role the seniors play." When asked what the primary focus would be, the coach said, "The batting department has to click. That's crucial. We need to focus a lot on skill training, and that's what I'll be doing."
The one thing that has held Mumbai in good stead in the recent past, however, is the manner in which the team has fought back in a crisis. The lower order - especially the likes of Ramesh Powar, Sairaj Bahutule (now with Maharashtra) and Vinayak Samant have chipped in with vital runs when the top order has stumbled. The challenge for the team, though, is in the medium-pace department. With seniors Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan away on national duty, and Avishkar Salvi not in the squad for the first two matches, it provides an opportunity for someone like Kshemal Waingankar, who will be making his Ranji debut, a chance to prove himself.
What they did last season
When Mumbai topped their group in the league phase with 16 points and set themselves up for a home semi-final at the Wankhede Stadium against UP, there was widespread hope that an outright win would pitchfork them into the final. There was an outright win alright, but it was for UP, by five wickets, as Mumbai's batsmen failed to fire in either innings. Once the home of Indian batsmanship, Mumbai did not have anyone in the top six who had represented India. Knocked out in the semi-final, they were forced to lick their wounds, only taking consolation from the fact that they had lost to the eventual champions.
Men to watch
There was a time when Mumbai was bursting with talent ready to force its way into the Indian team. At the moment, though, there's really only one man on the fringe, and that's Rohit Sharma, the middle-order batsman. For over a year now he has caught the eye with his stylish stroke play, but when he had the chance to make it count - in the Challenger Series - he could not make the most of it, coming up with two cameos but no innings of substance. Still, it is he that opposition teams will worry about, apart of course from the ever-prolific Muzumdar, despite no longer being the scary force he once was.
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