Eye on Ranji - 1
Ranji Trophy, India's premier domestic competition, is moving into its 76th year and it will be interesting to see whether this age-old competition manages to hold its relevance in the era of IPL and Champion Leagues. In a four-part preview series, Cricinfo profiles the Super League teams
The unrest in the Delhi and District Cricket Association appears to have ended with the administration convincing Virender Sehwag and other players who had protested against it to remain in Delhi cricket, but the true answer may come as the season progresses. The best way to dispel doubts and criticism is to win cricket matches, and to do that Delhi will need to gel as a unit, especially after the ugly capital crisis.
Vijay Dahiya, the coach, dismissed talks of a rift between players and the establishment when Delhi's pre-season camp kicked off without seven important names. A former player who knows the squad well and who played a role in Delhi's success two seasons ago, Dahiya's role as coach and mentor will again come to the fore given the absence of big names in the squad.
Sehwag has pledged his allegiance to Delhi but his participation, as that of Gautam Gambhir, Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, and Virat Kohli appears to be limited in 2009 due to India's schedule. The batting will revolve around Aakash Chopra, retained as captain, the newly appointed vice-captain Shikhar Dhawan, Mithun Manhas and Rajat Bhatia. For a side striving to touch greatness again, the presence of several youngsters with limited playing experience is indicative of the challenge ahead.
Delhi are in Group A, which comprises seven teams as compared to the eight in Group B. Their pool isn't an easy one, for Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Saurashtra are solid competition. It will be against Baroda, Maharashtra and Bengal that Delhi will need to win and win big. Delhi's six games are equally divided between home and away.
What they did last season
Defending champions last season, Delhi failed to make the semi-finals. They finished fourth on the Super League points table in 2008, winning two of seven matches. Their first win wasn't until the end of November, when they beat Orissa by 52 runs at home. It was a match played out on a wet and green pitch that claimed 40 wickets in 128.5 overs, and one that came in for plenty of criticism. Delhi were shot out for 78 in the first session; Orissa for 80 before stumps; Sumit Narwal hit a match-transforming half-century before taking three wickets to lead Delhi to victory inside two days. Delhi won their next match against Saurashtra by ten wickets in Rajkot. In between were a couple hard-fought draws and affairs on dull tracks where the bowlers were unable to push for success.
The batsmen, however, failed to dominate. No Delhi player crossed 500 runs and there were just three centuries - and therein lies a story. The medium-pacer Parwinder Awana's 27 wickets were seven more than the next best and trailing Pradeep Sangwan was Narwal with 17.
Men to watch
Narwal impressed last season and can look forward to playing more than four games this season. He started his career with Haryana, and was out of the team since 2003 before Delhi picked him, but has proved a prized investment for the side. A right-arm swing bowler and handy left-hand batsman down the order, he played a significant role in Delhi's win over Orissa and applied himself well in his three other appearances. His pre-season form has been impressive too, as witnessed by a hat-trick against Haryana in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
The new face in the squad for the first two matches is the unknown Pawan Suyal, a left-arm fast bowler. Suyal, from the north Indian region of Pauri Garwhal, has been selected just 16 months after landing in Delhi. He played 15 matches for Telefunken in the DDCA league and took 25 wickets, an achievement that got him noticed by the local selectors, who put him in the Under-22 side and then included him for the Ranji team.
Dhawan's elevation to the vice-captaincy indicates the role Delhi see him filling one day soon. He will be entering his sixth season of first-class cricket and as a leader of the younger generation Dhawan must contribute more runs. He was second to Chopra last year but with three key batsmen likely to miss out on a significant chunk of this year's domestic schedule, Dhawan's role assumes greater significance. Definitely one to watch.
Three finals in the last four years. There is no doubt that Uttar Pradesh cricket is on the rise and Mohammad Kaif, the proud captain, is ambitious, "Earlier we were not one of the big sides [but] now when you talk about Mumbai, you need to mention UP as well in domestic cricket."
They will start their tournament without Praveen Kumar, out playing for India, but they get RP Singh and Shalabh Srivastava, who has returned from ICL. The seamer Bhuvneshwar Kumar was one of the finds of the last season and when you throw in the spinners Piyush Chawla and Praveen Gupta, they have a good attack.
The batting line-up will miss Suresh Raina and much would depend on Kaif and Tanmay Srivastava who will be supported by Shivakant and Ravikant Shukla. They play four games at home, where usually the wickets encourage draws and one at Rajkot which usually is batting beauty. Expect lots of draws and grim fights for the first-innings points.
What they did last season
The batsmen came to the party as they lost just one game till the quarter-final and secured the first-innings lead in the rest. There were at least three occasions when they nearly looked down and out but were bailed out by the batsmen. In the game against Baroda, chasing 264, they had slipped to 97 for 6 on the final day but Kaif, batting low at No. 7, and wicketkeeper Amir Khan played out 30.5 overs to ensure a draw.
There was more drama against Karnataka in what was their last game before the quarter-finals. Coming in just before lunch, with UP still 143 short of Karnataka's 511, Chawla hit a vital 96, stringing together crucial partnerships with Kumar and with the last-man Amir to get the much-needed three points that saw them through the last eight.
And a monumental effort in the semi-final from Shivakant Shukla, who played the fourth-longest innings in first-class cricket, took them through to the final. UP were the favourites to polish off the required 193 runs at the start of the final day, but a spirited L Balaji kept TN in the hunt. However, Shukla put in a marathon effort to lead his team to the lead with only two wickets in hand. However, they were overwhelmed by Mumbai in the final.
Men to watch
Don't look past Kaif. He has already expressed his disappointment in not finding a spot in the Indian probables and it would be really interesting to see how he bats this season. Will he go on to prove a point or two or will this be the season where he begins to fade away, lacking inspiration for the dogged battle? Apart from Kaif, who averaged 48.09 last season, look out for Tanmay Srivastava and Shukla. In the bowling department, apart from Chawla, who will be desperate to get his name ahead of Amit Mishra, watch out for RP, who has just been dropped from the Indian team.
Ever since Orissa made the step up to the Elite stage two seasons ago, they have not been able to repeat the phenomenal success they had in the lower league - making the Plate semi-finals every year since their relegation in 2002-03. In the last season, they narrowly avoided the drop at the expense of Rajasthan, finishing second from bottom in Group A, managing just the one win against Punjab. Two relatively mediocre seasons is all they have to show, having finished fourth in their group in 2007-08.
No stone has been left unturned in order to achieve excellence, with the Orissa Cricket Association setting up a new academy to recruit budding cricketers. A sprawling practice ground with cement and astroturf pitches and state-of-the-art facilities like a mutli-gym and video analysis are just some of the endeavors to enhance performance. A tour of an academy in New South Wales was also planned to provide exposure to the Ranji Trophy players.
There have been personnel changes as well, with the appointment of R Srikant as chief coach. He replaces Venkatapathy Raju, who quit after Orissa's match against Delhi last season with two games still to go, citing personal reasons. Srikant would be assisted by separate batting, bowling and fielding coaches.
What they did last season
The lone win of their campaign, an emphatic nine-wicket win came against Punjab at home, which handed them five points. The victory masterminded by the Mohanties - Debasis and Basanth - was as good as it got for Orissa. The remaining four points came from the two draws against fellow-strugglers Rajasthan and Hyderabad, as they lost four of their seven matches. It was a nervy end to the campaign as the relegation battle headed into the final day with all three favoured to take the plunge. Debasis and Basanth ended as Orissa's joint-highest wicket-takers with 28 wickets apiece at 16.53 and 21.28 respectively, and along with old faithful Shiv Sundar Das, were perhaps key to Orissa maintaining their Super League status.
Men to watch
Shiv Sunder led the batting charts for Orissa last season with 361 at a strong 45.12, and went on to lead East Zone squad in the Duleep Trophy at the beginning of this year. However, with wicketkeeper Haladhar Das and Rashmi Parida missing from the squad, Orissa may find it difficult to pick up vital early points. Haladhar, the only Orissa team-member from last season who has featured in the IPL - in the inaugural season with the Deccan Chargers - has been sidelined due to injury and will be replaced by Subhrajit Sahoo, who has played just the four Twenty20 matches during the recently-concluded zonal leg of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
Parida, who boasts of a first-class average of 45.12, will also be sorely missed as Orissa have included two more rookies in the 15-man squad - Santosh Jena and Deepak Behera. Though the batting will revolve around the likes of Bikash Pati, Pravanjan Mullick and Niranjan Behera, the responsibility might once again fall on Debasis and Basanth - who finished 10th and 11th overall on the Ranji wicket-takers' charts last season - to lift Orissa to greater heights in the big league.