Ground realities and more for Hyderabad
The plush Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in the outskirts of Hyderabad has not been favourable for home teams since its construction in early 2005. The Deccan Chargers have famously not won any match in either the IPL or the Champions League at the venue, and Hyderabad have trumped in only three Ranji matches in 15. Even Sachin Tendulkar's regal 175 was not enough to provide India their first ODI victory at the venue.
The situation has got to the point where the Hyderabad Cricket Association held a three-day puja this week to counter the poor vaastu at the stadium (apparently the swimming pool has been built at the wrong location). Invoking the gods has done little to change Hyderabad's fortunes so far. Against champions Mumbai, the team could only draw after giving away the first-innings lead, collecting just one point, as they have in every match this season.
Hyderabad have traditionally been one of the stronger teams in the Ranji, but were crippled by the loss of nine players, including the highly rated Ambati Rayudu, to the ICL two seasons ago. While they weren't title contenders over the past two years, they were also rarely in danger of relegation. This season, fortified by the returning ICL players, they were expected to improve on their poor sixth place finish in 2008-09.
However, the vital first-innings lead has proved elusive so far this season, and with only five points from five matches, they have needed to constantly monitor the progress of co-strugglers Himachal Pradesh to see whether the ignominy of the Plate League awaits.
Has the comeback of five ICL players, taking the place of some of last year's squad members, affected the team spirit? Rayudu disagrees. "There has been no problem on return," he says, "The coach [former India left-arm spinner Venkatapathy Raju] has been very supportive, and the team spirit is very high though we are not getting the results."
Raju also says there's no cause for discontent. "Once the board gave permission that ICL players can play domestic cricket, they played local leagues," Raju says. "We picked players on their league performances and not just on reputation."
Hyderabad are just one clear of the drop zone with only two games remaining but their performances haven't been as poor as the table indicates. In the first game against HP, they were two wickets away from victory; against Punjab they were scuppered by a 99-run final wicket stand in the second innings.
They have a young squad, the oldest regular is 29-year-old Anirudh Singh. Is it the lack of experience that is preventing Hyderabad from closing out games? "Not really a question of experience, they have been playing for three-four years," Raju says. "The matches have been close but we have managed to not lose outright."
At the start of the season, Hyderabad had been banking on their batting to pull them through. But it hasn't gone to plan - only once in 10 innings have they posted 300, and there are still no individual hundreds and just one century partnership. "The main thing is we are not combining well as batsmen," Raju says. "which is surprising, most of these guys have been playing for a long time."
It hasn't helped that last season's top run-getters - Anoop Pai, DB Ravi Teja and T Suman - haven't replicated their form this season. All three have lost their places from the starting XI after a few games this season, and the constant changes - Hyderabad have used 20 players already this season and only four players have been in all matches - has raised eyebrows.
"All the selectors are experienced cricketers, they have played more than 50-odd matches," Raju says. "They have been watching lot of games, it's not that we just dropped them, it was their attitude."
Adding to the problems is the lack of a quality spinner, after Pragyan Ojha was called up to the national side and 19-year-old left-arm spinner Lalith Mohan joined the growing list of bowlers called up for a suspect action. "We have no genuine spinner as back-up," Raju agrees, "a couple of young guys are coming through in Under-19s, it's too early to play them. We need to groom them and hopefully they serve us well in the future. So basically now we are depending on our medium-pacers and batting."
The gods may not have answered Hyderabad's prayers but one man who might is VVS Laxman, a man who has proved unstoppable on the Ranji circuit, either by bowlers or by vaastu. All talk about Hyderabad facing a first-ever spell in the Plate League ends with "Laxman is available for final two games." They need him to deliver the points against Railways next week - when it will be two years since Hyderabad's last Ranji win - to ease the nerves ahead of a tough final match against table-topping Tamil Nadu.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo