A new season dawns for young hopefuls
The Punjab team and its players share a similar story: getting close to the summit and somehow letting their chance slip away. Reetinder Singh Sodhi, a star performer at the junior level and once touted as India's next great allrounder, was lost in transition; Gagandeep Singh, the medium-pacer, has often been a first-class terror but not managed to break through to the international stage; VRV Singh has been in and out of the Indian side after his international debut last year; and the team as a whole has come close to the title, which they claimed in 1992-93, but haven't managed to go all the way.
Recently, their best chance came in 2005 when they hosted Railways in the final. The pitch prepared, often as unresponsive to the fast bowlers as a government office is to the public, neutralised their fast-bowling advantage. Railways, one of the smarter teams around, eked out a first-innings lead and shut the door on their chances. They didn't make it to the semis last time: after being in contention throughout they were edged out in the last game by a more purposeful Uttar Pradesh.
Their batting continues to revolve around Pankaj Dharmani, their captain who also keeps wicket, Dinesh Mongia (assuming he isn't busy with international engagements) and Sodhi. Gagandeep, along with offspinner Rajesh Sharma will be expected to carry the bowling load, what with VRV Singh expected to be out on national duty. Ironically enough Daljit Singh, curator of the Mohali pitch, has been appointed the coach; his first lessons must be how to win on dead tracks in India. With Intikhab Alam's services discontinued, Punjab's only import this year will be the black soil that provided sporting wickets in the Champions Trophy.
What they did last year
They would regret not having been able to clean up Andhra in their final league match. As a result of that draw, they fell two points short of an on-the-rise UP who took the final semi-final spot. At one point they had 9 points from three games, with two outright wins - one with a bonus point - and looked good to make it to semi-finals; they ended with 11. They would rue not gaining enough first-innings leads, something Ranji success usually revolves around. Individually Mongia scored 517 runs that helped him claw his way back into the national side. Gagndeep took 28 wickets at 18.03. (Click here for Punjab's batting and bowling stats last season).
Men to watch
VRV Singh and Gagandeep will be crucial. If they can bowl well in tandem - last season VRV Singh was chosen for India mid-way - they will be one of the most potent new-ball pairings in the Ranji Trophy. This will be an important season for VRV Singh, who was not part of the one-day squad that was chosen for the South African tour. Another man to watch for is Sharma, who impressed in the Duleep Trophy.
For Hyderabadis, those who made their first-class debuts after 1987, the inability to win a Ranji title has been like a millstone around their necks. It was in March 1987 that Hyderabad shed their tag of perennial underachievers and claimed the title after a 49-year gap. Yet, for a side renowned for producing a few outrageously talented batsmen, a grand total of two Ranji Trophy titles is a poor return. Since 1987, they've come close - most famously in the 2000 final when they were overwhelmed by Mumbai - but never managed to go all the way. The back-to-back semi-final appearances in 2004 and 2005 proved that they had the ability to mix it with the best, yet lacked the killer-instinct to overcome the crucial hurdles.
In the last two years, Hyderabad's fortunes have depended on the availability of a certain VVS Laxman. The stats show the difference he makes: since February 1996, he's played 33 games for them and experienced defeat only three times; in his last 25 games he averages close to 110. His presence in the first two games, both away, would provide some inspiration. Once he heads off for the Test series in South Africa, though, it's the rest who need to pick up the baton.
A slew of youngsters make up the batting order - including Tirumal Suman and Ambati Rayudu who're set to return after one season in Andhra - but Venkatapathy Raju, the former Indian left-arm spinner who is currently the South zone representative in the national selection committee, didn't think there should be any excuses. "Most are young but they've actually been playing Ranji Trophy for a while," said Raju, who turned out for Hyderabad in 177 first-class games. "It's time they started performing consistently. A few others had a good first season last time but must watch out against being sorted out during the second season. It's happened to many players in the past and they need to constantly work on their game."
What they did last season
After entering the semi-finals in 2004 and 2005, Hyderabad endured a forgettable time last season, managing just one win in six games. Their three losses - to Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Baroda - were all heavy ones and seven totals of 200 or less showed how brittle their batting could be. Just two individual centuries - both from their wicketkeeper Ibrahim Khaleel - compounded their woes. Two left-arm spinners, Inder Sekhar Reddy and Pragyan Ojha, showed some promise but lack of back-up hurt them on flat batting tracks. (Click here for Hyderabad's batting and bowling stats last season)
Men to watch The return of Rayudu and Suman, who played for Andhra last season, is expected to add meat to their batting. "Suman has done quite well in all three lead-up tournaments," said Raju, "and hopefully he can carry on his form in the Ranji season as well. Rayudu has had a problem with conversion, getting to 40 and 50 and then giving it away but he needs to get some bigger scores this time. Ravi Teja is a talented Under-22 player who we've included and Arjun Yadav will be coming off a fine hundred in the Duleep Trophy."
Good times are here again for Saurashtra - once regarded as the cradle of Indian cricket before slipping into anonymity. They graduated to Elite Group after winning the Ranji Plate Trophy last year. After years of searching for a strike bowler, they seem to have zeroed in on incisive medium-pacer in Sandip Maniar. The squad is a ensemble of veterans like Shitanshu Kotak and enterprising youngsters like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja.
What they did last season
They lost to Orissa and Vidharba in the league stage but won the other three games to reach the semi-finals, where they squared up against Madhya Pradesh. Despite a ton by Kotak they ended up with a par-score of 296 but Maniar and Sandip Jobanputra shared eight wickets between them to help Saurashtra gain a slender 21-run lead. All the batsmen came to party in the second innings as Saurashtra ran away to a healthy 416 and stormed into the final. There were no half-measures in the title clash, though. Maniar's five-wicket haul blew away Rajasthan in the first innings before the batsmen amassed 408. Jobanputra took over in the second innings, nailing six wickets, before spinner Rakesh Dhruv ran through the tail allowing Saurashtra to complete an innings victory. Saurashtra had the privelage of playing against the South Africans in a Champions Trophy warm-up match last month. Though beaten, they were hardly disgraced as both Kotak and Pratik Mehta, a talented left-hander, scored half centuries. Mehta was particularly impressive, scoring 95 off just 80 balls against a world-class attack. (Click here for Saurashtra's batting and bowling stats last season).
Man to watch
In the recent years, Maniar has been the bowling machine for Saurashtra, putting in long spells. He doesn't hustle you with pace but teases with his stock outswinger and well-directed yorkers. He has been in stellar form for the last two years, taking 64 wickets in only 12 matches at an impressive sub-20 average. "I had been working persistently on my outswinger and during this season it became more pronounced," Maniar told Cricinfo Magazine."I've become more aggressive in my approach now."