An eye on Ranji - 4
In a five-part preview series, Cricinfo profiles the Super League teams for the 75th Ranji Trophy
Tamil NaduTamil Nadu was among the worst-hit teams when players defected to the ICL in droves and not surprisingly, the current set-up is just a shadow of the team of title contenders in the late 1990s. After narrowly avoiding relegation during the 2006-07 season, they performed only marginally better last season, with one outright win and four draws. Fortunately, they have a couple of players knocking on the doors of national selection and the challenge now will be to click as a team and regain lost glory.
The fact the team is in transition is something their coach WV Raman acknowledges and he knows the rebuilding process requires more time and self-belief. An early defeat last season exposed the weaknesses in the top order but fortunately, it didn't take too long for the batsmen to realise their potential. M Vijay regained his touch after a slow start, Abhinav Mukund was a find at the top of the order in his debut season and S Badrinath contributed heavily with the bat and crucially, his availability through the season helped Tamil Nadu stay afloat. The bowling, however, suffered a setback with the loss of promising offspinner R Ashwin mid-way through the season to injury.
Badrinath, however, will miss the opening three games as he's part of the Indian Test squad against Australia. Dinesh Karthik will lead in his absence. An important addition to the squad is L Balaji, who was forced out of the last two seasons with a career-threatening back injury. He will be expected to spearhead the bowling attack. Tamil Nadu will play five of their six games away from home, but Raman feels in the disadvantage may not count for much.
The team has been training hard since the start of October and they even headed to Punjab to play a couple of practice games to escape the Chennai rains. Aside from the routine nets, the squad has attended workshops on the mental aspect of the game.
What they did last season
They began with a draw against Maharashtra but fell short of obtaining a first-innings lead. Inept batting cost them the match against Mumbai, which was over inside three days but the situation eased out with high-scoring draws against Karnataka and Saurashtra, managing first-innings points in both games. They finally registered their first victory of the season, easing past Himachal Pradesh by 180 runs and gained points in a rain-affected draw against Rajasthan. However, they fell off the mark against stronger opposition as Delhi, the eventual champions, losing by eight wickets.
Looking at the positives of the season, Raman was satisfied with the batting but wasn't happy with the state of the pitches. "We managed to put the runs on the board and maintain the intensity," Raman told Cricinfo. "The bowling was alright but some of the pitches weren't result-oriented and didn't have enough bounce. Also, the weather in Chennai robbed us of crucial points on a few occasions and that affected our chances of qualifying."
Men to watch
M Vijay has been one of the unsung heroes in the domestic circuit and his season tally of 582 runs was enough to convince the selectors to pitchfork him into the India A side. He was the leading run-scorer in the Tests against New Zealand A recently a well as the second-highest run-getter in the Challenger Trophy. Ashwin was the leading wicket-taker of the tournament and a stand-out feature of his performance was his economy-rate in all three games.
According to Raman, the season will be very crucial for Karthik to fight his way back in to the Indian side. Balaji will be watched keenly and this season will determine whether he has the ability to sustain himself in the longer version of the game. His recovery has been very gradual and Raman expects him to get better and better.
RajasthanWith an average age of 25, lacking star batsmen and a new signing in former India batsman Venugopal Rao, Rajasthan are a side in transition. Three losses from four games last season was hardly the ideal start but there was no lack of positivity in this side, when you spoke to the players, coach, and support staff. That's a trait the side is going to need aplenty to stay afloat in the Super League another season. With the likes of Robin Bist and Manish Sharma, in their early 20s, Nikhil Doru and Rohit Jhalani, closer to 30, and veteran Gagan Khoda, at 34, Rajasthan is a mixed bag. What they need to do is find a happy medium.
Rajasthan's bane last season was an inability to put up big totals. They went past 300 only twice all season, and their best of 393 came halfway through the tournament. "Last season I got some good runs, but I didn't make a hundred," Bist, one of the positives from 2007-08, told Cricinfo. "We've been training hard in the off-season and we're all keen to take our form further this season. We need to bat better and put up more runs. We've got a new captain and we're looking forward to learning from him."
What they did last season
Rajasthan finished second-last on the list, winning just one match. They started poorly and then, in a humdinger at Jhalawar, lost three wickets in a manic final over, when they required nine runs to beat Mumbai for their first win of the season. They finally managed a win over HP in the final round.
Vineet Saxena, 27, was Rajasthan's highest run-scorer last season with 566 at 47.16, with two hundreds and two fifties. Coming in second was the promising Bist, 21, with 415 at 37.72, with a best of 99 against Karnakata in Mysore. Bist made his first-class debut last season, starting off with a patient second-innings 69 in a loss against Delhi. But there were no hundreds from any other batsmen and that's an issue that needs sorting out. Pankaj Singh, who was called up to India's Test side in Australia but didn't play a game, took 26 wickets at 23.96. Next best was right-arm medium-pacer Sumit Mathur's 20 at 23.55. Mohammad Aslam, the veteran left-arm spinner, came in third with 17.
Men to watch
Bist, as Rajasthan's coach KP Bhaskar identified last season, is one to watch out for. In his first season, Bist impressed with his shot-making and composure and the side expects more from him. Like Bist, Saxena will be relied to score heavily. Mishra is another exciting prospect, who needs to work on curbing his enthusiasm. He got to fifties, but didn't always convert. Pankaj will lead the attack.
MaharashtraLast year they played 14 debutants with an eye on the future. The build-up continues: the new captain, Nikhil Paradkar, has played only three matches and will be fourth captain in four years. Venugopal Rao, who moved to Maharashtra last year decided to shift to Rajasthan and Sairaj Bahutule, another senior, relocated to Mumbai, his home town, after spending three seasons with Maharashtra. Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the longest-serving local player and former captain, is the Madhya Pradesh captain now. And Chandrakant Pandit, after serving as director of coaching for three years, stepped down after Maharashtra failed to reach the knock-out stage last season.
Still, Ajay Shirke, the Maharashtra Cricket Association president, is optimistic that grooming youth is the right path to success. Yogesh Takawale, who played for the Mumbai Indians during the IPL but fared badly during the Challenger Series and then in the four practice games (18 runs with bat) during the pre-season training sessions, has been dropped. Mun Mangela, the Mumbai pacer who moved to Maharashtra this season, has been dropped on disciplinary grounds.
What they did last season
Two outright victories in their first three games including a bonus point and then three crucial points against Mumbai on the basis of first-innings lead surprisingly put Maharashtra as joint leaders of their group along with Delhi. Going into the fourth game, they wouldn't have imagined what followed; they hurtled to three successive defeats against Delhi, Saurashtra and Karnataka.
Not one Maharashtra batsmen could score more than 500, with Harshad Khadiwale topping the run charts with 468 while both Rao and Takawale made 419. Samad Fallah, the left-arm medium pacer, was the highest wicket-taker with 20 wickets at 23 and Bahutule was close on his heels with 19 at 26.
Men to watch
Khadiwale will once again remain the key in the batting and despite his inexperience Paradkar will have to lead from the front. As far as the bowling goes there is no experienced hand to inspire the rest of the bunch. So Shaun Williams, the director of coaching, has his job cut out. It will also be a good challenge for Enamul Haque jnr, the Bangladesh import who will be playing his first season as a guest player.