An eye on Ranji - I
In a five-part preview series, Cricinfo profiles the Super League teams for the 75th Ranji Trophy
Delhi finally got it all together last year. One of the big anomalies of Indian domestic cricket - why the most talented team couldn't win the Ranji Trophy - was eliminated. And unlike the last three champions - Railways were relegated during their title defence, Uttar Pradesh and Mumbai just about avoided the ignominy, Delhi seem to have the required class and stability to take themselves to the next level.
While there is a change in the leadership - Aakash Chopra takes over from Mithun Manhas as the captain, most of the other personnel is the same this time. What they will look forward to is the comeback of the mercurial Ashish Nehra, who did well in the IPL. They can also look forward to a good draw too - the dangerous teams in their group being Saurashtra, semi-finalists last year, and Mumbai. Punjab, Rajasthan, Orissa and Hyderabad are strictly dangerous floaters. They play four away matches, and three at home. Feroz Shah Kotla, though, will be available for only one of those.
Vijay Dahiya, the coach, knows the team well, and worked wonders for them in the season just after his retirement. He will want to do more of the same this year, a year when after a long time Delhi will start the favourites.
What they did last season
It was an almost perfect season for Delhi last year. And even when it was not perfect, they managed to escape without burns. They were bowled out for 119 on the first day of the Ranji Trophy, but came back to clean Rajasthan up for 89, and win the match by 172 runs. In their fourth match, against Himachal Pradesh, when they were bowled out for 75 in the first innings, they managed to hold on for a draw, while following on.
They managed crushing victories against Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, and also first-innings points against Saurashtra and Mumbai, which took them to the semi-finals. The fighting spirit resurfaced in the knockouts. In the semi-final, Gautam Gambhir led a 272-run chase in the final innings. In the final, Chopra and Rajat Bhatia scored centuries to take them from 36 for 4 to 290, still a 52-run first-innings deficit. Another Gambhir century in the second innings took Delhi to the title, their first in 16 years.
Five of Delhi's batsmen crossed 500 runs - Chopra, Gambhir, Bhatia, Mithun Manhas and Shikhar Dhawan. Two of them - Chopra and Gambhir - crossed 700, and were also Nos 2 and 3 respectively on overall run-getters' list. Bhatia more than chipped in with the ball, taking 26 wickets at an average of 12.65. The 17-year-old Pradeep Sangwan was Delhi's main strike bowler, with 33 wickets at 19.24.
Men to watch
Nehra, just for endearment value, should be the man to watch out for. He has spent two seasons unfit, and in and out of the team, but his comeback during the IPL was superb. Whether he can carry it to a format where he will be bowling 20 overs by himself during a day will be interesting to see. Virat Kohli, who led India U-19 to the World Cup triumph last year, is definitely the one for the future - for Delhi, and possibly for India. Dhawan would want to carry on from his last season's form too. And then there are the strong seasoned heads for Delhi: Bhatia, one of the most valuable allrounders on the domestic circuit, Chopra, and Manhas.
Orissa were the surprise package in Group B in 2007-08, winning two successive games to upset everybody's calculations. However, they failed to extend their dream run and crashed out in stunning fashion against Punjab before the semi-finals. Orissa have a new coach, Venkatapathy Raju, the former Indian spinner, and they should hope to do better than last season. Orissa have retained Shiv Sunder Das, the former India opener, as captain. Das replaced Pravanjan Mullick during the previous season to help the side retain its place in the Super League. Most of Orissa's performances still revolve around Das and Debasis Mohanty, easily the two most recognisable faces in the team, but with no players lost to the ICL, the side needs its youngsters to step up.
What they did last season
Orissa finished fourth in Group B last season, winning two games out of six. Their first match was an innings defeat to Uttar Pradesh and after losing a thriller to Andhra in round three, after the fourth round they sat at the bottom. Then they got into form with an outright away win over Hyderabad, followed by a six-wicket win over Bengal with more than a day and a half to spare. Suddenly Orissa had ten points from four matches. However, that seven-wicket loss to Punjab will sting; in their second innings, Orissa were bowled out for 76 - VRV Singh took a hat-trick - with the last nine entries on the scorecard reading 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 4, 6, 0, 0*. Orissa signed off their season with a draw against Baroda.
Statistically, Das was again Orissa's highest run-getter with 394 at 39.40, with one hundred. Coming in at second was Pinninti Jayachandra with 286 at 31.77. There were only three centuries all season, indicative of Orissa's failure to go deep. As for the bowlers, Debasis Mohanty finished with 30 while his namesake, Basanth, had 20. Preetamjit Das, a left-arm medium-pacer, came in third with 15.
Men to watch
Mohanty, at 32, remains Orissa's leader of the pack. His assets remain an ability to control his swing - this did it for Bengal last season - and the experience he brings to the side is invaluable. Like Das, another player with national experience, Mohanty's success could well dictate how Orissa progress in 2008-09. Preetamjit, who took a five-wicket haul in his fifth first-class match, was steady without being spectacular last season and should get plenty of opportunities. Young Halhadar Das, the wicketkeeper, notched a maiden first-class century last season and was competent behind the stumps. He is one of the more promising Orissa players.
Three seasons ago, Railways stirringly came back from the brink of relegation to the national championship. That fairytale story made for plenty of copy in Indian journalist circles, and rightly so. Then came the descent: the next year they were relegated to the Plate League. They're back in the Super League by virtue of making the Plate finals last season, and will need to be at the top of their game to avoid relegation again.
Sanjay Bangar lead well last season in the absence of Murali Kartik, away on national duty, and his role with Railways will always be special. He topped the wickets tally with 38, 17 more than the next best, new-ball bowler Harvinder Singh, and also scored 293 runs from seven matches at 32.55. Railways' batting clicked for most of the season: apart from their star, Bangar, Harshad Rawle, Mahesh Rawat, Sanjib Sanyal and Karan Sharma all scored over 300 runs at over 60.00. Life will be tougher in the Super League, so a repeat of such impressive numbers will be needed.
Railways have plenty of experience in Bangar, Amit Pagnis, Raja Ali and Harvinder Singh, which should keep them in good stead as they aim to recapture at least a little bit of the glory years.
What they did last season
Railways topped the Plate League's Group B with three wins from five matches, without a loss. They began by routing Jammu & Kashmir by an innings and 88 runs in less than three days and their second win, over Jharkhand, also took three days. To enter the Super League, they managed a 45-run first-innings lead over Kerala in Nagpur and then denied Kerala's best efforts to force a result. In the final Railways, led by Bangar's six-wicket haul, fought valiantly on the final day but Gujarat hung on for a one-wicket win to become the Plate League champions. Bangar took eleven wickets in the match but was unable to prevent Gujarat from winning a nailbiter in Mumbai.
Men to watch
As always, Bangar and Kartik will be relied on heavily. But there are some youngsters who Railways can turn to. One such is Rawle, who moved from Mumbai before last season and scored 528 runs from seven matches to help Railways get promoted. Mahesh Rawat, the wicketkeeper who switched from Haryana and also represented the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL, impressed too. His exposure to international players in the IPL may lift his game this year. Madan Yadav, a left-arm spinner, turned in parsimonious figures of 22.4-12-22-4 in the first innings against J&K and will need further such outings to support his seniors.