Weakened Rajasthan remain confident
Aakash Chopra, Pankaj Singh and Rituraj Singh, three men who contributed to Rajasthan's successful Ranji Trophy campaign last season, are absent from the squad but their captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar believes the Irani Cup contest against a strong Rest of India side is not "uneven."
Chopra, one Rajasthan's three professionals and their third highest run-scorer, moved to Himachal Pradesh. Pankaj, the third highest wicket-taker in the 2011-12 tournament with 34 victims, is recovering from an injury. Rituraj, a the star performer with the ball during the knockouts, is touring New Zealand on India A duty. These three players, along with Robin Bist, Vineet Saxena and Sumit Mathur, were pillars of Rajasthan's success last year. At one stage during the league phase Rajasthan, who were defending their maiden title won in 2010-11, were in the danger of being relegated to the Plate League, but they finished winners instead.
Kanitkar, however, said the belief that Rajasthan could challenge Rest of India came from their hard work in the last two years. "We are a state team and they are representing the rest of the country. So on paper, it definitely looks off balance," he said. "But we have a combination that has done well and we will stick to it and then who knows what will happen."
When told the last team to beat Rest of India to win the Irani Cup was Railways in 2000, Kanitkar said his team was capable of doing the same. "A couple of seasons back, Rajasthan had never won the Ranji for 76 years. So this record is not that imposing, it is just 10 years old. Hopefully, we will be able to win it this time."
One reason for Kanitkar's belief is that he can draw on the experience of two coaches: Meyrick Pringle, the former South African fast bowler, and Chandrakant Pandit, the former India wicketkeeper and a successful domestic coach. Pringle, who was brought in as a consultant for the second half of the previous season, was given a formal contract by the Rajasthan Cricket Association last month. Pringle, according to the players, was one of the architects behind Rajasthan's fast bowlers bouncing back during the end of the season.
Pandit, who formerly coached various Ranji Trophy sides including Mumbai and Maharashtra, was signed by RCA late last season as the director of cricket. He also doubles up as the coach of the senior team and is expected to renew bonds with Kanitkar, who was the Maharasthra captain when Pandit was coach.
With the curator having left some grass on the pitch, both Cheteshwar Pujara, the Rest of India captain, and Kanitkar said they would play at least three seamers. In the absence of Pankaj and Rituraj, Kanitkar said it was a good oportunity for Deepak Chahar, who made headlines with his record performance against Hyderabad in a Plate group Ranji match, to prove his talent once again. "Rituraj Singh came in when Deepak Chahar missed a lot of action in the last season due to jaundice. Deepak had done well a couple of seasons back. Rituraj had grabbed that opportunity. When Rituraj is not there, Deepak has come back. This match is a big stage and hope Deepak will make use of it," Kanitkar said. Chahar is likely to share the new ball with the left-right combination of Ankit Choudhary and Sumit Mathur.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo