Ranji Trophy 2013-14 October 26, 2013

Services aim for encore against tougher teams

ESPNcricinfo staff

Services: Eager to build on last season's success

Abhishek Purohit

Where they finished last season
Semi-finalists. They topped Group C, earned themselves a promotion and also knocked out Uttar Pradesh in the quarter-final. Mumbai's experience, and their own lack of it, proved too much in the semis.

Big Picture
Services were the success story of the previous season. The sight of captain Soumik Chatterjee hobbling out with a badly injured knee against the UP fast bowlers to courageously guide his side home in a tense chase was the defining image of the team. However, getting promoted and upsetting UP was one thing. Playing an entire season in a higher group will be different.

"It will be much tougher," said Wing Commander Deepak Bhaskar, the Services manager. "But what the last season has given us is self-belief. The boys will go into this season with the faith that they belong at this level."

On the preparation front, Services' build-up has been hampered by the harsh monsoon this year. "Our preparation has been fine, but I won't say it has been very good," Bhaskar said. "There was lots of rain in Delhi (Services' base). We sent the boys to Hyderabad to play a few games, but the rain followed them there. When they came back, it followed them again."

Like last season, Services will rely on the batting of young Rajat Paliwal and the experienced Yashpal Singh. "These two are the pillars around which our batting revolves," Bhaskar said. The bowling will be in the hands of the three seamers - Suraj Yadav, Shadab Nazar and Nishan Singh, who grabbed 103 wickets between them in 2012-13.

Key players
Rajat Paliwal, the 22-year-old from Haryana, racked up 784 runs last season at an average of 78.40 with four hundreds, including one in the quarter-final. For someone so inexperienced, he batted intelligently and calmly in the pressure of a quarter-final. He also played an unofficial Test for India A against West Indies A recently and made an unbeaten century for North Zone in the Duleep Trophy against East Zone. The seam-bowling trio of Yadav, Nazar and Singh will also have to click again if Services are to test the big sides.

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Tamil Nadu: Looking to bury the demons of 2012-13

By Nikita Bastian

Where they finished
Seventh out of nine teams in Group B.

Big Picture
After being finalists in 2011-12 and semi-finalists the year before, Tamil Nadu had a forgettable 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season. They won only one game out of eight, losing another and drawing six. The bowling appeared particularly vulnerable, with the team bowling the opposition out only five times in their eight games. Captain L Balaji put the poor showing down to a "transitional phase", with some of the team's key players being away on national duty and the younger lot having to step up.

Both Balaji and coach WV Raman, the former India batsman who has resumed his role with Tamil Nadu after a three-year stint with Bengal, are confident that last year's showing was just an aberration. The team is consciously working on getting back-up players ready, Raman said: "We need to try and get the second line going because we may be faced with a situation where a couple of players may get picked for the national side."

This season, M Vijay is the only one in the squad who is likely to be called away. When he is available, the squad boasts one of the tournament's strongest top orders in S Badrinath, Dinesh Karthik, Abhinav Mukund, B Aparajith and Vijay. However, they will be missing one of their more experienced seamers this year, Yo Mahesh, who requires knee surgery. J Kaushik, who was their leading wicket-taker in their run to the 2011-12 final, has been cut from the squad after a poor last season when he averaged over 40.

Raman, however, is not worried about the bowling. "We have [pace-bowling] youngsters like M Mohammed and Aswin Crist showing potential. We also had a gain last year in Malolan Rangarajan [the offspinner, who was the team's leading wicket-taker] and [left-arm spinner] Aushik Srinivas also looks to be getting back on track after an indifferent period in the last couple of seasons. So, I wouldn't worry about the bowling."

Crist is one of the two uncapped 19-year-olds in the squad. Capable of "working up good pace" he is one of those who has been impressing for Tamil Nadu at the Under-19 level. Then there is top-order batsman B Indrajith, who was in prime form in the Buchi Babu Trophy and the local leagues. Tamil Nadu have also brought in 24-year-old keeper Umashankar Sushil, who last played for the side in 2009.

Player to watch
Even as his twin brother Indrajith looks to break into the state first-class side, 19-year-old B Aparajith already has the buzz of expectancy floating around him. He was one of India's handy allrounders at the Under-19 World Cup in 2012, represented the Under-23s this August and was picked in the India A limited-overs squad, against West Indies A, in September. He was solid through the previous Ranji season, playing all of his team's matches for an average of 40. He became only the fourth player to score a double-hundred on Duleep Trophy debut, after Mohammad Azaharuddin, Sanjay Manjrekar and Rakesh Parikh. He followed that up with another century against Central Zone, and also picked up a handful of wickets with his offspin. In a recent interview, Aparajith said he was keen on honing his all-round skills. Tamil Nadu - and perhaps the India selectors - would love nothing better than to see him establish himself as a reliable allrounder this season.

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Bengal: Time for batting to click

Kanishkaa Balachandran

Where they finished last season
Seventh in Group A

Big Picture
Since finishing Ranji runners-up two consecutive times, ending 2006-07, Bengal have struggled in the following seasons to be considered as title contenders. Their 2012-13 season was a forgettable one, winning only one game out of eight and finishing seventh in their group. Batting was their biggest worry, and it didn't help that they lost their captain and best batsman Manoj Tiwary to injury in the middle of the season. As a result, Bengal couldn't have a permanent leader and the captaincy changed hands between Wriddhiman Saha and Laxmi Shukla.

The injury-prone Tiwary is absent again and is likely to miss the entire Ranji season this time around, following two knee surgeries. Shukla has been named captain and it is learnt that Saha was not considered for the captaincy because the selectors did not want to burden him with the extra responsibility, given that he's the wicketkeeper and a handy batsman as well. They have also accounted for the possibility of Saha being away on national duty for India's next two Test assignments, at home against West Indies and away in South Africa.

Lifting Bengal's fortunes will be a challenge for their new coach Ashok Malhotra, the former India batsman. Malhotra takes over from WV Raman, who coached the side for two seasons. Bengal didn't notch up too many big scores last season and if they are to progress this time, their batting needs to show more consistency. Moreover, they will have to cope without Tiwary.

Key players

Ashok Dinda had a quiet 2012-13 season, taking eight wickets in four games. Mohammad Shami was their best bowler, taking 28 wickets in just five games including two ten-wicket hauls. With Shami getting more opportunities with the senior Indian one-day team and making a good impression, the responsibility on Dinda will increase with Bengal.

Laxmi Shukla had a decent all-round season with Bengal last year, scoring 376 runs with a century and two fifties and 20 wickets, from seven games. Shukla's been around for Bengal since 1997-98 and as one of the most experienced players, will be expected to shoulder the responsibility.

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Baroda: Consistency, fitness key goals

Alagappan Muthu

Where they finished last season
Quarter-finals, but their performance has paled in the recent years. They finished second in Group B last season

Big Picture
Baroda's run at a sixth title will be boosted by the availability of their "big players". There were a few notable absences last year- the Pathan brothers played a total of four matches combined - but coach Sanath Kumar believes things will be different this time.

"We are hoping to have Irfan [Pathan], Yusuf [Pathan] and Munaf [Patel] with us for as many matches as possible," he said. "Though Irfan is working through some back issues, we think he'll be fit by the second week of the competition"

The additional experience could prove vital in helping Baroda string some good performances together, something they lacked last season. "One match we are on top and then next we collapse. So we are focused on trying to improve our consistency this season," Sanath Kumar said.

He described bowling as their primary strength, though left-arm spinner Bhargav Bhatt and seamer Murtuja Vahora had to do most of the heavy lifting last season, claiming 29 and 26 wickets respectively.

"We struggled with our bench strength," Kumar said. "If anyone got injured, we did not have any back up. But this time we have a good set of fast bowlers."

Babashafi Pathan, 19, has shown promise, clocking 135-140 kph and Hardik Pandya the 20-year-old legspinning allrounder, could assist Bhatt, who churned out at least 90 overs more than every other bowler in the side in 2012.

Players to watch
Ambati Rayudu switched from Hyderabad to Baroda in 2010 and has since risen to captain the side in the absence of Yusuf. The additional responsibility, although for only five matches, brought out the best in him as he struck five fifties and a century. Should he acquit himself as well as he did last season - 666 runs in 8 matches - his chances of securing a consistent place in the national side may increase.

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