Eye on Ranji - 3
The 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 relevance in the era of the IPL and Champion League Twenty20. In a four-part preview series, Cricinfo profiles the Super League teams.
Tamil Nadu can look back at the last season and afford a big smile. A team fairly ravaged by the ICL was going through a transitionary phase and it was a question of how long it would last. After initial struggles, they grew in confidence once their top order started notching up big scores. In 2008-09, the pieces started falling into place.
Tamil Nadu possessed one of the strongest batting line-ups in the competition with the likes of Abhinav Mukund, M Vijay, Arun Karthik, S Badrinath and Dinesh Karthik. Abhinav began the season with an unbeaten triple-hundred and ended with a mountain of runs. Karthik, the captain, was the second-highest run-scorer after Abhinav with 634. Vijay, who averaged 77.20, was rewarded with a Test debut against the Australians. L Balaji had a fairytale comeback from a career-threatening injury with 36 wickets and was back in contention with the Indian team.
All the while, coach WV Raman remained quietly optimistic a revival was just around the corner. He was rewarded for his belief with a semi-final spot. Unfortunately, Tamil Nadu were edged out on first-innings points against Uttar Pradesh and the chapter ended there.
They are placed in Group A and begin their campaign against Railways in New Delhi. Their biggest challengers will be Gujarat, who finished second in the group stages last year, and Ranji champions Mumbai. They play all seven games away from home but last season's performance has indicated that they're very comfortable playing away.
Like many other teams, the big difference this season is the recall of the ICL players. The squad for the opening match features only one in R Jesuraj and as the season progresses, we could see players like R Sathish, G Vignesh and Syed Mohammad get a look-in. "We're finding it difficult to include everybody," says Raman. That itself indicates the competition for places.
What they did last year
Their season opener against Maharashtra in Nasik was one for the record books. Abhinav and Vijay added an insane 462 for the first wicket, with the former going on to record the third triple-hundred by a Tamil Nadu batsman. Unfortunately, they fell just three short of the all-time Ranji record for the opening wicket. That draw was followed by another high-scoring one in Bangalore, against Karnataka. Arun Karthik and S Vidyut were amongst the runs and they had made enough to enforce a follow-on. Their first outright win came against UP in Ghaziabad. Dinesh Karthik set it up with a double-hundred before Balaji's five-for ensured an innings win. Their next game, against Andhra, was affected by rain. Balaji and Karthik teamed up again, in their 259-run win against Baroda and that was followed by a high-scoring draw against Railways. Balaji's six-for in the quarter-finals against Bengal set up the next knockout clash against UP. Shivakant Shukla's monumental knock of 178 - the fourth-longest in first-class cricket - edged out Tamil Nadu on the basis of a first-innings lead.
Men to watch
Over two seasons, Abhinav has turned into a run machine. No surprise though that he finds himself in the Board President's XI team against the Sri Lankans next month. Arun Karthik, who has a century on first-class debut, will be a force to reckon with at No.3, his preferred position, but he could be asked to open if required. Aushik Srinivas and Kaushik Gandhi are the two rookies to look out for, says Raman. Gandhi, a 19-year-old right-handed batsman, was amongst the runs in the Tamil Nadu leagues. Srinivas is a promising left-arm spinner.
It's hard to tell what changes to Punjab's set-up really mean because they happen so frequently and without significant results. This year Punjab will play under a new captain and coach, their fourth in four seasons. Ankur Kakkar, the batsman, takes over from veteran Pankaj Dharmani; Karan Goel, the batsman who played for Kings XI Punjab in the IPL, has been left out of the squad; Ravneet Ricky, the veteran of 72 first-class matches yet only 29, is also absent from the list. There are four new faces, Bharat Loomba, Gaurav Gambhir , Rahul Sharma and Vishwas Bhalla and it remains to be seen what they contribute. The absence of VRV Singh through injury - he missed last season - is a blow.
Punjab clearly are yet to recover from the ICL exodus that saw 12 players defect to the now defunct unofficial league. They did well to avoid relegation last season. That the likes of Reetinder Sodhi and Dinesh Mongia have not been called back is indicative of the mire in which Punjab cricket lurches.
Punjab had a disappointing season last time and their new coach Bhupinder Singh has said it will be tough to get the team to start winning matches again. Punjab last won the Ranji Trophy in 1992-93 and from being runners-up in 2005 to securing just eight points in six games the next year, then losing half the team to ICL, then finishing fifth along the eight teams in Group A of the Super League least season, it has been a downhill ride.
What they did last season
Punjab played just one match at home last season and the effects of homesickness were evident. Their nadir was being bowled out for 60 in their first innings by Orissa in a nine-wicket defeat, while a ten-wicket loss to Gujarat seriously rankled. Their two solo wins - over Rajasthan and Hyderabad - were down to clutch performances from a couple individuals but all too often the failure of the bowlers to run through sides hurt Punjab. For the second season running Uday Kaul's centuries were individual landmarks in helping the team avoid conceding first-innings leads, and Sunny Sohal and Kakkar also scored good runs, but far too often Punjab failed to bowl sides out in a hurry. Manpreet Gony had a second disappointing season with the ball and Gagandeep Singh, while adding more wickets than in 2007-08, didn't get the desired support.
Men to watch
Kaul and Sohal scored the bulk of Punjab's runs last seasons and will again be expected to shore up a lot of the responsibility. But the one man with a considerable buzz about him is the 26-year-old Chandan Madan, who was rewarded with an IPL contract with the Mumbai Indians after his Man-of-the-Series performance in the BCCI Corporate Trophy. Madan has had a stop-start first-class career with Punjab, playing only 13 matches despite making his debut in 2003, but after topping the tournament scoring chart he may well get more playing time. With VRV still recuperating from injury and not expected to play at least in the first half Gagandeep will for the third season lead the attack. Harmeet Singh, the medium-pacer who was part of IPL winners Deccan Chargers, can expect to make his first-class debut in VRV in Siddharth Kaul's absence.
"We may not have won a single game last season, but Hyderabad has always been good enough to survive," says coach Venkatapathy Raju. With nine players lost to the ICL exodus, the team managed to stay afloat in the Elite Group over two seasons, a credit to their skills. The previous season was particularly hard, littered with draws, three defeats and not a single outright win. It's all a part of a rebuilding process and this season promises a better showing, now with the ICL players returning.
The batting, according to Raju, is the least of the team's worries but it's the bowling that needs attention. There wasn't enough arsenal to go that extra mile and pick up those 20 wickets. A lot will hinge on the left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, as long as he's available. The team will also look to make use of VVS Laxman's inputs and experience while he's around - his availability is only restricted to the first two and last two games. Arjun Yadav will take over the captaincy in his absence and Raju had a word of praise for his leadership last season.
The team is placed in Group A with Railways, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Mumbai. Their main challengers will be Gujarat, TN and Mumbai. The team was unfortunately denied sufficient match practice during the Syed Mushtaq Ali Twenty20 tournament after four matches were called off when Andhra Pradesh went into mourning after the sudden death of chief minister YSR Reddy.
They have the home advantage this time, playing six of their seven games in Hyderabad. Now with a slightly stronger team - with the inclusion of the gifted, yet rebellious Ambati Rayudu - they will be out to make amends. For inspiration, they can read up the Deccan Chargers' story.
What they did last year
Hyderabad managed draws in their first four games. They bagged first-innings points against Orissa and Ranji champions Delhi, were in trouble when Gujarat enforced the follow-on before the captain Arjun Yadav led the rescue effort with a century. They then played out a high-scoring draw against Rajasthan, with Laxman piling on 224 in his only Ranji appearance that season. But things went downhill. Mumbai batted them out of the game and that innings defeat was followed by a nine-wicket loss to Punjab. That was followed by a low-scoring encounter against Saurashtra, which ended with them tumbling to 71 while chasing 177. Their batting was exposed against stronger opposition, but despite the succession of defeats, they finished seventh.
Men to watch
Audiences had the chance to witness T Suman in the IPL and he ended the last season with decent returns of 426 runs in seven games. Anoop Pai, the Ethiopia born top-order batsman, led the run charts last season with 550 runs. Besides Rayudu, the coach Raju expects the other ICL returnees, batsman Anirudh Singh and seamer Alfred Absolom to make an impact. Their experience will be crucial if both Laxman and Ojha aren't available. All three tasted plenty of success at the other side of the fence with the ICL Hyderabad Heroes. All they need to do is bring that winning culture into the team which nurtured their skills.
It probably came as a surprise for Baroda not to find themselves in the knockout stages last year, having made the semi-finals in the previous two seasons. But then, they had decided to experiment by introducing young talent and like with all things youth, patience is the key. Paras Mhambrey, who joined Baroda last year as coach, is of the firm belief that the youngsters in the team are steadily getting confident in their own ability and would soon start delivering the goods.
Irfan Pathan's appointment as the captain is a positive step considering the average age of the Baroda team is in the 23-24 range if you take out the four veterans - Satyajit Parab, Connor Williams, Jacob Martin and Rajesh Pawar.
Unfortunately Irfan is not available for the season opener, against heavyweights Delhi, on home ground as he is not completely fit. The responsibility moves to elder brother Yusuf, who was dropped from the Indian ODI squad recently. More importantly it is a good challenge for youth brigade of Ajitesh Arghal, Azhar Bilakhia, Swapnil Singh and Rakesh Solanki to go for the broke and re-establish Baroda as a contender in the Ranji campaign.
What they did last year
It was a frustrating season with three losses against seasoned sides (Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) and three victories against weaker opponents (Railways, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra). Apart from Irfan's brilliant bowling that included three five-fors, Baroda never really were in the news.
Men to watch
Needless to say seniors like the Pathan siblings and Munaf Patel (depending on their availability) would obviously remain the go-to men. But it is the youngsters who could just play a vital role. Bilakhia, their top scorer last year, would fancy to take over the leadership in the batting order and also deploying the tips he might've picked at Deccan Chargers, current IPL champions, from the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Herschelle Gibbs and Andrew Symonds. The pair of Rakesh Solanki and Swapnil Singh, two talented batsmen, is capable of lending able support to the seniors and hungry to prove their worth at this level.