An eye on Ranji - 2
In a five-part preview series, Cricinfo profiles the Super League teams for the 75th Ranji Trophy
Can a new captain and new selection committee change Mumbai's fortunes? That is the challenge Wasim Jaffer and Padmakar Shivalkar, newly-appointed captain and chairman of the selection committee, face after Mumbai's attempt to defend the crown ended on a dismal note last season. There's still hope.
The return of Sairaj Bahutule, who was the captain when Mumbai won the title in 2003-04, augurs well as his all-round and leadership skills will prove to be an inspiration to the youngsters. Bahutule, who decided to head back home after three seasons with Maharashtra, replaced Nilesh Kulkarni, the left-arm spinner, who was brought in at the fag end of the season last year but wasn't effective.
The key thing for Mumbai is that the nucleus of Jaffer, Amol Muzumdar, Bahutule, Ajit Agarkar and Ramesh Powar rise to the occasion and bond well with the youth brigade led by Rohit Sharma, Abhishek Nayar, Dhawal Kulkarni and Sahil Kukreja. On paper it's a rich blend of youth and experience and it's just a matter of putting it all together as a team.
Praveen Amre has been given another go as the coach after fingers were pointed at him last year about certain selections and to his credit he owned up responsibility. But if Mumbai need to bounce back they need to work as a team. That's their biggest challenge.
What they did last season
Not much. To qualify for the semi-finals Mumbai needed to beat Saurashtra with an outright win. Muzumdar scored a century in his 100th Ranji game but Mumbai lost out on the first innings lead. Mumbai could've avoided this precarious state had their bowlers broken the stiff resistance of a resolute Himachal Pradesh, who recovered despite following on and robbed Mumbai of a much-needed win. In the previous game Mumbai had recorded a dramatic last-ball victory over Rajasthan. Going into the final over Mumbai needed three wickets, Rajasthan had to get nine runs. Murtuza Hussain, a medium-pacer in only his second first-class game, picked two wickets while a run-out accounted for the third.
In the absence of Jaffer, who played only two games and a below par Rohit, Muzumdar took on the additional responsibility of leading the batting well, ending with a tally of 502 at 62, the only Mumbai player to breach the 500-mark. Meanwhile Powar, with 24 wickets, was the highest for Mumbai.
Men to watch
With advertisements for the vacancies in the Indian middle-order certain in the near future Rohit will be anticipating a call-up based on the talent and skills he's displayed in the ODIs and Twenty20 playing for India. This season he needs to carry that forward in to the longer version. Then there is the senior bunch of Jaffer, Agarkar, Muzumdar and Powar, desperate to prove that their stock is still strong. What's good for Mumbai is the seniors can definitely expect stiff competition from the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Kukreja, Nayar, Dhaval Kulkarni and Rohan Raje.
One of the more modest teams on the Ranji circuit, Gujarat were knocked off the Super League after the 2006-07 season and had to fight it out amongst the less fashionable teams. The relegation didn't appear to further scar the morale of the team as they stormed through the Plate League last season to emerge the champions, beating Railways by a whisker in Mumbai.
Led by Parthiv Patel, the most recognisable face in the side, the team thrived on the consistency shown by players like Nilesh Modi, Niraj Patel, Mohnish Parmar, Ashraf Makda and the captain himself. They hammered their way into the semi-finals with four wins on the trot, including two innings victories. Now back in elite company, Gujarat's true test will be against the imposing sides in Group A like Mumbai, Delhi and Punjab. They kick off their campaign this season against association neighbours Saurashtra.
The players, fortunately, have financial rewards to play for this season, with the Gujarat Cricket Association recently announcing an incentive scheme. The president, Narhari Amin, said the reward money will be staggered from the first match to the last in order to encourage better performances. Most importantly, they stand to earn a booty of Rs 47 lakh for a Ranji title victory, in addition to the BCCI's reward of Rs 60 lakh. With lucrative Twenty20 leagues attracting players like magnets, schemes like this might set a precedent for other states to reward its players better and more importantly, retain them.
What they did last season
Gujarat had the home advantage in their first two games and strolled to victory in both. Modi and Niraj managed big hundreds while Parmar sealed the victory against Assam with a five-wicket haul. They crushed Tripura by an innings thanks to centuries by Parthiv and Bhavik Thaker and a seven-wicket haul by Makda. They went on to hammer Services by an innings and 193 runs and the chief wrecker was Parmar who finished with 11 in the match. After a few anxious moments, they brushed past Vidharbha in Valsad before suffering their first and only blip, losing to Kerala. They sank Madhya Pradesh by 159 runs in the semi-finals before meeting Railways in the summit clash.
Railways managed 260 after opting to bat first at the Brabourne Stadium and Gujarat, led by Modi's 107, edged ahead with a lead of 20. A combined effort by Gujarat's bowlers restricted the opposition to 169, leaving the team a target of 150. It appeared as if Railways fell short by at least 100 runs with Gujarat coasting at 124 for 4. Sanjay Bangar and Murali Kartik threatened to pull off a remarkable turnaround and after a slew of wickets, it was anybody's game at 143 for 9. Siddarth Trivedi and Jay Desai hung around and scraped the seven needed to end Gujarat's fledging season in style.
Men to watch
Parthiv proved why he has been on the fringes of an India comeback, topping the Plate run charts with 615 runs at 51.25 - perfect way to end the dream season both as a plater and captain. Parmar was impressive against Australia A in Bangalore as his four-wicket haul in Bangalore forced the visitors to follow on. His 37 wickets in the Plate League was just one behind the leader Bangar. Niraj and Trivedi were part of the Rajasthan Royals' victorious campaign in the Indian Premier League. Trivedi, a nippy medium pacer, too won the praise of his captain Shane Warne.
At the start of the previous season, an observer pointed out, "nothing much has changed in Saurashtra in the last 15 years." As it turned out, he spoke to soon. Traditionally one of the lesser-known teams in the circuit, they were the surprise semi-finalists in the Super League, finishing unbeaten in the league phase before losing to Uttar Pradesh. Saurashtra have proved they aren't pushovers any more and they have the added home advantage for all seven league games. Jaydev Shah will continue to lead the squad, which contains two new faces in Sheldon Jackson and Mohsin Dodia. Their season opener is against Plate winners Gujarat.
What they did last season
After gaining first-innings points against Himachal Pradesh, Saurashtra only just managed to hang on against Delhi. Cheteshwar Pujara's 148 was a face-saving effort in an improbable chase of 327 and the team secured a tight draw after losing nine wickets. Pujara's match-winning effort came a game later as Saurashtra strolled past Rajasthan by 200 runs in Jaipur. In Chennai, they were made to sweat against Tamil Nadu after being asked to follow on but fortunately the batting didn't collapse twice. Sandeep Jobanputra, the left-arm quick, starred in a thriller in Mysore with a six-wicket haul, a fifty and a crucial caught-and-bowled in the climactic stages to help his team home by three runs. The team was on a high and an eight-wicket win against Maharashtra propelled them to the top of the points table.
They needed just a draw against Mumbai to secure a spot in the final four and their 'marathon man' Shithanshu Kotak did everything to ensure that, batting more than 12 hours for his unbeaten 168 and in the end, had the pleasure of knocking out the defending Ranji champions. The purple patch ended in Vadodara where nobody, barring Mohammad Kaif, managed to make sense of the sporting pitch. The result - achieved in just two days - could have gone either way, but Saurashtra walked away with their heads held high.
Men to watch
Pujara was the centre of Saurashtra's success and his aggregate of 807 at 73.76 placed him at the top of the run charts across both leagues. Rather oddly, he never featured in a single game for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League, but he shrugged off the setback and reminded everybody of his prowess recently, slamming two triple-centuries in a week during the Under-22 CK Nayudu Trophy. Ravindra Jadeja wasn't a roaring success last season but his name has featured in high-profile series like the U-19 World Cup and the IPL. His aggressive batting in the middle order and left-arm spin make him an exciting prospect.