A season of hope and expectation
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.
This is a plain tragedy. A combination of archaic administration, nepotism and apathy for the players have caused Delhi's fall from a powerhouse to an also-ran. Once a bastion of the North zone, Delhi last entered the Ranji Trophy final way back in 1997. Their last semi-final appearance was in 2003 and they've even flirted with relegation on a few occasions since then. The season couldn't have got off to a worse start, with Amit Bhandari, unfit according to the official report, being picked in the side ahead of promising youngsters who've done well at the age-group levels. The fact that several players find a place in the team only because of their surnames tells you the story.
As always, it will fall upon a few talented individuals to carry the side. Aakash Chopra, who produced a fine 188 to lead North Zone to the Duleep Trophy title, has a great chance to stake his claim for a recall to the Indian side. It's a similar situation for Gautam Gambhir, who, if one were to believe close observers, has tightened his technique in an attempt to earn a recall. Mithun Manhas, their captain, will be expected to shoulder a large share of the middle-order burden. Chaitanya Nanda, the legspinner, managed 30 wickets last season but none of the rest even managed to touch the 20-wicket mark. The return of Ashish Nehra couldn't have come at a better time.
What they did last season
Delhi escaped serious embarrassment last time around by winning the relegation battle against Railways. Their seven-wicket win against Railways, though, was their only victory of the season and three defeats - to Bengal, Gujarat and Karnataka - left them in a hopeless position. The emergence of talented young batsmen - Shikhar Dhawan, Mayank Tehlan and Rajat Bhatia - provided some relief but an insipid bowling attack, added to umpteen constraints being imposed from the DDCA offices, added to their woes. (Click here for Delhi's batting and bowling stats last season.)
Men to watch
Delhi kick off the season with four home games and it provides three players - Gambhir, Nehra and Chopra - an ideal chance to stake their claims. India, currently touring South Africa, may need a third opener for the Test series and an eye-catching performance early on wouldn't do Gambhir and Chopra any harm. Nehra too has an opportunity to prove his fitness and form.
Gujarat's record in the Ranji Trophy has been pretty poor. A sole appearance in the final, in 1950-51 where they lost to Holkar, remains their only big achievement so far. But Anshuman Gaekwad, their coach, is confident of a better showing this time. "Our bowling was good but the batsmen were not consistent last time," he told Cricinfo. "I have worked on them a lot in the pre-season. It is looking good, their approach is better and hopefully the results will come through." However, Gujarat will start their season with a handicap. Siddharth Trivedi, the fast bowler who recently took six wickets for West Zone against Sri Lanka A in the Duleep Trophy, will be out for two more weeks owing to a lower-back problem.
What they did last season
It was not a great season as they finished in sixth position with just two wins. Trivedi shone in both the triumphs, scalping ten wickets against Delhi and eight against Karnataka. While the bowling was pretty good, the batting was a huge disappointment. Not one single batsman averaged more than 33. (Click here for Gujarat's batting and bowling stats last season.)
Man to watch
Mohnish Parmar, who earned an instant reputation for an action which resembled Muttiah Muralitharan's, suffered a major setback at the end of the Under-19 World Cup when the ICC questioned his bowling action. Parmar worked on it at the NCA with former Indian offspinners Shivlal Yadav and Erapalli Prasanna. Initially, he struggled to rediscover the big turn and had to shelve the doosra. But after extensive sessions with Raghuram Bhat and Kanwaljeet Singh the old confidence is back "My big turn is back and so is the doosra," Parmar told Cricinfo. "In three matches in the U-19 Cooch Behar Trophy being played now, I have got 26 wickets. I am very comfortable with my new action and have been practicing a lot. I am confident that there won't be any questions raised on the action. My desire is to play for India soon and so I am keen to perform in this Ranji Trophy season."
Gaekwad also expressed confidence in Parmar. "It's nice to have him in the squad. We missed some quality spinners in the last season and couldn't press home the advantage after a good showing in the first innings. After trying out several things, we have settled on a nice rhythmic action. He is in pretty good form and is a confident lad. It will all depend on how quickly he matures."
These are exciting times for Maharashtra, with talk of including foreign players not only for the Ranji Trophy but also at the U-17 and U-19 levels. They also have a new coach - Chandrakant Pandit, the former Indian wicketkeeper and coach of the Mumbai Ranji Trophy-winning team in 2003-04. Pandit helped Maharashtra win their first Cooch-Behar Trophy last season and played a part in their victory over Mumbai after a 52-year gap. With Sairaj Bahutule, their captain, going back on his decision to rejoin Mumbai and staying with Maharashtra, a shrewd coach at the helm, and the 'import' of the domestic stalwart Sridharan Sriram, Maharashtra would be expected to spring a surprise or two.
What they did last season
It was not a flash season. They ended up at No. 5 after winning two matches and losing one. But the highlight came when their bowlers, spearheaded by Munaf Patel's 9 for 101 in the match - took them to a famous win against Mumbai in their final league game. Earlier, they beat Tamil Nadu by nine wickets but a slew of draws, where they yielded first-innings points, pushed them down the ladder. (Click here for Maharashtra's batting and bowling stats last season.)
Men to watch
Sridharan Sriram, the former Tamil Nadu middle-order batsman, knows a thing or two about grinding out domestic hundreds. A first-class career that has spanned 13 years, an impressive average of 55.19, and appearances, although limited, for India all adds up to a prize catch for Maharashtra. "Ajay Shirke offered me a very good contract and more importantly I was excited at the opportunity of working with a fabulous coach like Chandrakant Pandit," Sriram told Cricinfo. "I am a professional and my aim will be to help Maharashtra reach at least the semi-finals stage."