Ranji Trophy 2013-14 October 26, 2013

Tough task for defending champions

ESPNcricinfo staff

Mumbai: Likely to face a challenging season

By Nagraj Gollapudi

Where they finished
As Ranji Trophy champions. However Mumbai's journey was not a smooth one: they could muster only two outright victories in eleven matches.

Big Picture
Until Zaheer Khan delivered an inspired match-winning, and season-turning, spell against Madhya Pradesh in the penultimate group match, Mumbai's ride last season had been wobbly. Once they reached the semi-finals, however, Mumbai's determination and much-talked-about aura was restored as they cruised to win the 40th Ranji title comfortably.

Their troubles have not been washed away in the new season. If Mumbai are honest, they will admit this is likely to be one of their most challenging seasons. Their weakest suit is their bowling. Ajit Agarkar's retirement and Ramesh Powar's decision to play for Rajasthan has left a void that cannot be filled immediately. In the last decade, Agarkar and Powar were pillars on which Mumbai's success story was built. Both men not only bowled tireless spells, but also returned to the crease to deliver match-saving cameos and, occasionally, match-winning ones. Along with another stalwart, Wasim Jaffer, the trio was the bridge that connected the new generation to the ethos of Mumbai cricket: cuss out the opposition.

So far only Dhawal Kulkarni, from among the newer lot, has shown the capability of coping with the rigours of domestic cricket. However, Mumbai's chief concern will be their inexperienced spin attack led by the left-arm spinners, Iqbal Abdulla and Vishal Dabholkar. Abdulla, three short of 100 wickets for Mumbai, has remained inconsistent despite chances over the last few years while Dabholkar has just played four matches so far. It is something opponents will aim to capitalise on.

Mumbai would do well to take advantage of the presence of Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane and gain early momentum in the group stage.

Players to watch
He is not attractive, but he can get under your skin - with bat, ball, and with his blunt sledges. A quiet man off the field, Abhishek Nayar showed his ability to make big noise when he finished as the second-highest scorer in Ranji Trophy with 966 runs and 19 wickets. So far this season, he scored two fifties and a century against the A teams from New Zealand and West Indies and also hit a fifty in the NKP Salve Challenger Trophy. In the absence of established players like Zaheer, Rohit and Rahane - due to fitness issues or national commitments - Nayar is steadily growing into the go-to man for Mumbai.

Team speak
"To do well in Ranji Trophy, it is all about consistency. Along with that fitness and how we perform in the away games will be the three goals we will need to meet." Abhishek Nayar, Mumbai vice-captain.

Click here for the full squad.


Punjab: Young and well-rounded

By Nikita Bastian

Where they finished
Semi-finalists, after topping Group A.

Big Picture
After a couple of ordinary seasons, when they finished in the lower halves of their groups, Punjab were arguably the most dominant side in the group stages last year. They won four of their first five games - two by an innings, one by eight wickets and the other by nine - and despite not winning any of their remaining group games finished almost 10 points clear of the next team. In the quarter-final, they piled up a whopping 699 for 3 with Taruwar Kohli hitting an unbeaten triple.

Punjab's strength was that, in a batsman-dominated competition, their bowlers were very successful. In their ten games, they managed to bowl out the opposition for below 300 eleven times. They took full advantage of the traditionally seamer-friendly conditions in Mohali, winning all their home games. Among the tournament's top five wicket-takers, two were from Punjab. Siddarth Kaul was second on the table with 44, and Sandeep Sharma was No. 5 with 41.

That's not to say the batting was far behind. Three of their batsmen scored over 500 runs - Mandeep Singh (595), Uday Kaul (652), and the tournament's leading run-getter, Jiwanjot Singh (995). The only glitch in their season was being bowled out for 59 against Mumbai, when Ankeet Chavan ran rampant with a nine-for.

Coach Bhupinder Singh, the medium-pacer who played a couple of one-dayers for India in the mid-90s, said last year offered valuable experience for what is a "young team". "This is a young bunch and they played good cricket last year, and they are richer by one year's experience. I hope we are able to take the next step now, past the semi-finals."

Missing from Punjab's squad is batsman Karan Goel, who's out with a shoulder injury, but should be fit later in the season. Legspinner Rahul Sharma has also not made it for the first match, with Bhupinder saying Punjab has him in the reserves but views him primarily as a limited-overs option. Left-arm spinner Bipul Sharma has been dropped and is likely to shift to Himachal Pradesh. Then there's Yuvraj Singh, who, while not named in the squad for the first game, "has promised to play if he's not part of the Indian Test team [for the West Indies series]". If Yuvraj plays, he will be the go-to man for the team's young batsmen, while captain Harbhajan Singh will mentor the bowlers.

Players to watch
The squad's big addition this year is pace bowler VRV Singh, who last played first-class cricket in the 2007-08 season before being sidelined by a back injury. VRV Singh, 29, who has played Tests and ODIs for India, underwent surgery on his back, and returned to competitive cricket last year when he played in the domestic T20s. Since then, Bhupinder said he has been easing his way back into cricket, playing for longer and longer periods. "He's bowling well and I think he can be my surprise package this year," Bhupinder said. "He seems in good shape and is generating good pace." Given that India always seem lacking on the bowling front, and that before the injuries arrived he was impressive enough to earn praise from the likes of Ian Bishop, the Indian selectors might well be keeping a quiet eye on how he does.

Jiwanjot Singh, 22, was the tournament's top-scorer in his debut season. He has since made it to the India A team and the North Zone team for the Duleep Trophy. He has played 15 first-class matches, but not a single recognised limited-overs game. That, Bhupinder said, is down to his style of play: "Jiwanjot is more suited to the longer version. He's more into technical correctness. Batsmen from five, seven, ten years back, he's more in that mould. Plays very straight and has a good defence."

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Jharkhand: Eager to shine in the big league

By Vishal Dikshit

Where they finished last season
Jharkhand finished second in Group C last year. Three outright wins and as many draws took them to the quarter-finals against Punjab. They were promoted to Group A for this season.

Big Picture
The beginning of Jharkhand's season will be watched for the comeback of two players who have had fleeting international careers so far - Varun Aaron and Saurabh Tiwary. While Tiwary had a shoulder operation in August, Aaron has been plagued with injuries since he last played for India in 2011. Jharkhand also have a new coach in Subroto Banerjee and two new recruits - Bhavin Thakkar and Bhavik Thaker.

Middle-order batsman Thakker last played a first-class game in the 2010-11 season, for Himachal Pradesh, and averages 35.62 from 37 first-class matches. Thaker, also 31, moved from Gujarat, who did not give him a chance in the last season, and averages 40.

Their bowling, an area of strength, features one of the most promising spinners in the domestic circuit. Left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem, captain of the side, was also their highest wicket-taker in 2012-13 with 42 wickets from nine games. He will be accompanied by offspinner Sunny Gupta who took four wickets against North Zone in the recent Duleep Trophy semi-final. Shankar Rao and Ajay Yadav will handle the pace attack. While Rao averaged 24.65 last season with 26 wickets, Yadav played only five matches and impressed with 23 wickets, mainly through his haul of 11 wickets against Services and 10 against Tripura.

Jharkhand began their Ranji campaign last year with an outright win - an innings and 31 runs against Jammu & Kashmir - but will face a stiffer challenge in their first game against Delhi this year. While they shone in the lightweight Group C last season, the more accomplished opponents this season will test how far Jharkhand have progressed.

Key players
Saurabh Tiwary amassed 602 runs in the previous season at an average of 46.30, including two hundreds and three fifties. However, his comeback is likely to be tough. He hasn't played a professional match in more than five months and will be facing more potent attacks this season.

Varun Aaron, on the other hand, hasn't played since IPL 2012 due to the recurrence of a back injury. The bowler recently said he had made a "slight adjustment" to his bowling action and hoped that the tweak would help him last the season. Jharkhand will be hoping it works out that way, as a fully fit Aaron will make the side's attack formidable.

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Haryana: Ajay Jadeja in the spotlight

By Devashish Fuloria

Where they finished
Eighth in Group B with one win in eight matches.

Big Picture
Last year, Haryana were bowled out for 55 on the first morning of their opening Ranji Trophy match - their lowest-ever Ranji total - against Vidarbha. In their second match, they were again bowled out for a lowly 66 but despite the batting debacles, the conversation every time teams played in Rohtak hovered around the seamer-friendly conditions in Lahli, their home ground.

They say it's the high water-table beneath the ground that provides the moisture to the pitch and open fields around the ground mean there is always the assistance of breeze. However, more often than not, it's the traveling teams that have exploited the conditions better. It could be different this year, as the Haryana Cricket Association have roped in their former stalwart Ajay Jadeja as coach and captain.

Jadeja came out of cricketing hibernation in August when he played Buchi Babu tournament for the team, at the ripe age of 42. Jadeja, and with the weight of 8046 first-class runs behind him, he will have the responsibility of not only leading the team with the bat, but also providing direction.

Haryana's first match this year will be under media glare for being the last first-class match for Sachin Tendulkar, Jadeja's former India opening partner. For Jadeja, though, it's a new start and he will have the tough job of setting the scene for the long season ahead.

Key players
With Amit Mishra likely to be away on national duty and the batting being the weak link, Haryana will depend on key contributions from seamer Mohit Sharma, who relished the conditions at the home venue last year. He collected a rich haul of 37 wickets, that included three five-fors, at an average of 23.24. But Haryana may have to do without him for chunks of the season as he is not too far from being called up to the national team, at least for the limited-overs matches against West Indies and South Africa.

Click here for the full squad.