Eye on Ranji - II
In a four-part preview series, ESPNcricinfo profiles the Ranji Trophy Super League teams.
Wasim Jaffer, Mumbai's spirit, voice and captain for many years now, put it succinctly after crashing out of the quarter-finals last season when he said his team had taken Rajasthan - a team that had qualified from the Plate group - lightly and were a bit arrogant for doing that. Mumbai, one short of lifting the crown forty times, are no more the elite, no more the clear favourites.
In a way it is a completely new path Mumbai will walk this season. Praveen Amre, a hardworking simple man who coached Mumbai over the last five years - three times to victory - has decided to take a break for a year; Ajinkya Rahane, Mumbai's best batsman of the last three years is busy learning the ropes in the India dressing room. Ajit Agarkar and Abhishek Nayar are injured.
So it is time for change. A time for Mumbai to discover new talent. A lot will depend on their captain Jaffer's success in the middle order, a position he exchanged his opener's slot for last year somewhat erroneously - he harbours hopes of a national call-up once the Big Three of India's Test team make way. It might sound a tad selfish, but Mumbai's inexperienced batting line-up can learn a lot from Jaffer's fighting spirit.
It is the bowling that would be a constant worry for Mumbai. Aavishkar Salvi and Dhawal Kulkarni are not outright fast bowlers, and both have been susceptible to injury in the past. The bench-strength is thin. The spin pair of Ramesh Powar and Iqbal Abdulla would be key if Mumbai are to go the whole hog.
The selectors, too, need to have the right strategies. Last year Mumbai tried out 23 players. They tried three openers, one of which Sahil Kukreja has retired. Sulakshan Kulkarni, their new coach, once a wicketkeeper for Mumbai, is known for his sound tactics. Last year he was the brain behind Vidarbha, a Plate team, reaching the semi-finals of the Ranji one-day competition as well as the knockouts in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Mumbai can do with fresh ideas.
What they did last year
Till the first day of their quarter-final contest against the eventual champions Rajasthan, reigning champions Mumbai were well on course to defend their crown. They had endured a tough ride through a difficult group with four out of their seven matches being away, including trips to Tamil Nadu and Delhi. Two victories and five draws ensured Mumbai would finish at the top of Group A. Despite possessing an inconsistent bowling unit, Mumbai's top three batsmen - Wasim Jaffer, Rohit Sharma, and Ajinkya Rahane - looked in good shape, supported by sound numbers.
So a clash with rank outsiders Rajasthan seemed to be just another stepping stone in Mumbai's march to the summit. But the problem was, Mumbai had assumed their opponent was a lightweight. Jaffer elected to bat on what turned out to be good pitch for the new-ball bowlers. Medium-pacer Pankaj Singh stunned Mumbai with a six-for on the first day that restricted them to a modest total, which Rajasthan overhauled patiently over the following three days. By the end Mumbai were left deflated.
Men to watch
Last season Rohit Sharma finished as the second-highest run-getter. He followed it with an equally strong performance in the IPL. Then a freak injury in England, at the start of the ODI series, dashed his hopes of a possible Test call-up. So Rohit now finds himself back where he started last year, and is bound to be hungry for runs.
Iqbal Abdulla was named the Under-23 player of the 2011 IPL. Abdulla bowled aggressively, even with the new ball, for Kolkata Knight Riders and played a crucial role in his team finishing in the top-four. Last year, Abdulla was Mumbai's best bowler with 27 wickets. Given their current line-up of bowlers, Mumbai need him to click like never before.
How do you top a fairytale? Not only did Rajasthan win the Ranji Trophy for the first time in their history last season, they did it after starting in the Plate League. They were the underdog's underdog, yet the team, led by their professional captain, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, had been carefully crafted to maximise their chances of success.
Getting to the top of the mountain, though, is always easier than staying there. As the defending champions, Rajasthan won't be able to sneak up on anyone and the other teams will all want to knock them off their perch. But that's exactly the position they want to be in. "Everyone likes to be an underdog," Aakash Chopra, their veteran opener, told ESPNcricinfo. "But you don't want to be an underdog for too long. This is a rare opportunity. You get to see the world from a different side."
Rajasthan have retained the same core of players who took them to the title last year. The three professionals - Kanitkar, Chopra and Rashmi Parida - return and they will have the use of Ashok Menaria, who scored a century in each of the knockout games last year, for the entire season. Add Robin Bist to the mix and the batting has a very formidable look to it.
They will also be boosted by the belief that comes from winning. "You start believing you are as good as or better than your opponents," Chopra said. "You back yourself to perform and win games." That self-confidence will be crucial as there will be no easy games in the Super League. With Rajasthan drawn in the same group as heavyweights Mumbai and Karnataka, even a spot in the quarter-finals is not guaranteed.
The team does have a couple of injury problems, most notably to legspinner Vivek Yadav who took 22 wickets last season. They will look to offpsinner Madhu Katri to fill the void. They are a pace-dominated bowling attack though and Pankaj Singh and Deepak Chahar, who picked up 83 wickets between them, are both fit. They also have 21-year-old Aniket Choudhary, a left-arm seamer who is six feet, five inches tall, and could surprise a few people. "It [the season] is about putting runs on the board," Chopra said. "We have the bowling attack to bowl people out."
What they did last season
Rajasthan began the season in spectacular style with a rout of Hyderabad, bowling them out for 21 as then debutant Chahar took 8 for 10. They followed that up with draws against Goa and Madhya Pradesh before trouncing Tripura. One more draw against Jharkhand ensured they topped their group and progressed to the quarter-finals. Drawn against defending champions and perennial nemesis, Mumbai, nobody expected them to go any further. But Pankaj Singh took 6 for 64 to bowl Mumbai out for 252 and centuries from Kanitkar, Saxena and Menaria gave them an insurmountable advantage. A first-innings lead saw off Tamil Nadu, this time Chopra, Kanitkar and Menaria made the hundreds. Menaria delivered again in the final, hitting a crucial second-innings 101 to see off Baroda's challenge and give Rajasthan's fairytale journey the perfect ending.
Men to watch
Menaria returned after back surgery and eight months on the sidelines last season to score 373 runs in three knock-out games at an average of 93.25. His contributions were vital to Rajasthan's success and whether he can duplicate that kind of consistency will play a large part in how far Rajasthan go this year. The new-ball pair of Singh and Chahar was the best in show, with only Baroda spinner Bhargav Bhatt taking more wickets. Chahar, especially, will be hard pressed to replicate his brilliant debut season, where he took 30 wickets at 19.63 in the Plate League and 10 wickets at 25.80 in the Super League. If these bowlers can produce the same sort of incisiveness against higher quality opponents, Rajasthan will be hard to beat.
Delhi's Ranji Trophy campaign began with a spectacular display of fireworks - appropriate given that the Diwali season is just winding down and not surprising because it is after all, Delhi. Two days before their first match against Haryana, coach Manoj Prakbhakar was given the sack, after he criticised his players in the press. The chance of Prabhakar having had a civilised discussion before leaving are far less than that of the DDCA winning a governance award.
Outside this routine chaos, though, Delhi's cricket could be a reason for delight. Despite everything, they continue to generate a stream of talent: four Delhi players were on India's World Cup winning team, more than any other state. At the moment, though, with its headline-generating administration and a drama-generating dressing room, Delhi's cricketers can only wait for the simple business of play to begin.
Delhi begin the season with injuries to two key players: Sumit Narwal, who is not just an opening bowler but all-round performer, and left-arm quick Pawan Suyal, who was picked for the Irani Cup despite having undergone a knee surgery in the summer.
Captain Mithun Manhas believes it will be a tough season for his team; the India players are tied up with higher duties and the experienced Ashish Nehra is out of the four-day game. So, the burden lies with the younger men - batsman Unmukt Chand is suddenly in the spotlight after his showing with the India Under-19 side and the bowling will rely heavily on Pradeep Sangwan and Parvinder Awana. Narwal is expected to be up and running half way through the league phase.
What they did last season
Underachieve. Manhas believes that Delhi suffered a combination of misfortune and cricket's cruelty to miss out on the knockout round completely. Early on, Delhi lost first-innings' lead points to Bengal and then struggled to make the most of their matches against the weakest teams in their group, Gujarat and Saurashtra, after play was curtailed - two days against Saurashtra and 140 overs against Gujarat. In their last league match, Delhi needed just a single point from a draw to make it through to the last eight. With the northern winter closing in and Manhas indisposed, Railways drove Delhi into the ground with a fiercely determined defence of 135.
Men to watch
Unmukt Chand, 19, will be put through his second-season examination, to see if he is the next big thing from the Delhi batting battery. Manhas describes him as a 'flashy, hard-hitting 21st century prototype'. "It will be a good season for him to learn, and we will know in another two-three first-class seasons as to how far he can go," Manhas said. Newcomer Rishit Saini's medium-pace for the Under-22s has raised hopes in Delhi's pace department. Manhas and Rajat Bhatia are the only two players above 26, in a team that has an average age of 22. So, even away from the familiar names, Delhi are loaded with plenty of possibility.
Every year, Tamil Nadu enters the Ranji Trophy as one of the favourites on paper. Their talented line-up lives up to the billing through the league phase, before inevitably failing in the knockout stages. The theme occurs with remarkable consistency every year - in the last 11 years, they have made the knockouts eight times, including two finals, without going all the way. The pressure to break their big-match jinx will weigh heavy on Tamil Nadu this year, and to make matters worse they will be without some of their big players, while some others are not in the best of form.
S Badrinath is out for at least two weeks with a rotator-cuff injury, while R Ashwin will miss out for extended periods, having made it to the national side. Dinesh Karthik and M Vijay come into the season low on confidence, having lost favour with the India selectors. L Balaji, who has carried the attack on his shoulders for many years, will be saddled with the added burden of captaincy, and will have to work with an inexperienced attack, with C Ganapathy being axed. The absence of regular names like R Sathish and S Anirudha means TN will be fielding more than their share of new names.
While the bowlers will ease their way into the season, batting will form the key for Tamil Nadu's progress. Vijay and Abhinav Mukund form a formidable opening combination, while the Karthiks - Dinesh and Arun - have the pedigree to fill the void left by Badrinath in the middle order. Ashwin's absence is an opportunity for left-arm spinner Aushik Srinivas, who topped Tamil Nadu's wicket-charts in the 2010-11 Ranji season. Will the new-look combination click for Tamil Nadu as they resume their hunt for the trophy that has eluded them since 1987-88?
What they did last season
Tamil Nadu made the knockouts despite winning only one of their seven league games. The victory came in their season opener, when L Balaji and Sunil Sam starred with the ball against lowly-ranked Assam. Ashwin snared 10 wickets against Delhi, but a batting implosion meant Tamil Nadu lost first-innings points despite a Badrinath century. A double-ton from Abhinav and 195 from Badrinath ensured Tamil Nadu got the decisive lead against Saurashtra, and the pair was among the runs again in the rain-marred encounter with Railways. Rain at home continued to spoil their fixtures, as points were shared against Bengal, but they managed to get the lead against Mumbai and Gujarat. They held off Haryana in a rain-marred quarter-final in Rohtak to set up a semi-final showdown against Rajasthan.
The bowlers, who had been lulled into a comfort-zone by now, struggled to dislodge Rajasthan's stubborn line-up in Jaipur. Aakash Chopra, Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Ashok Menaria made tons to lift the score to an imposing 552 for 7, and despite a fighting 175 from Badrinath, Tamil Nadu fell well short.
Men to watch
Abhinav Mukund's first tour with the national team, to the West Indies, suggested he was overawed by the quality of the opposition and the big stage. By the time he came to grips with that challenge, he was facing an attack of far greater pedigree at the most-anticipated match of the year - the 2000th Test at Lord's. There he showed superb composure to overcome the gravity of the moment and work his way to a start. Despite the promise, Abhinav is back on the fringes after failing to display his ability to bat on and on at the highest level. The break can only do Abhinav good, as it gives him another chance to return to the familiar grind of domestic cricket, and revive his confidence and appetite. A good start to the season could see him regain the third opener's slot in time for the tour of Australia.
Inputs from Sidharth Monga, Nagraj Gollapudi, Sharda Ugra, Nitin Sundar, Tariq Engineer and Nikita Bastian