Eye on Ranji - 4
It will be fascinating to see whether the Ranji Trophy competition manages to hold relevance in the era of the IPL and Champions League Twenty20. In a four-part preview series, ESPNcricinfo profiles the Super League teams.
Defending champions for the last two years they might be, but Mumbai's reign at the top is far from cosy. The questions from the beginning of last season still remain.
One glaring problem is the shaky middle-order. Barring Ajinkya Rahane and Wasim Jaffer, there is nobody else who has shown the consistency and the runs to give hope. This could be a vital season for Rohit Sharma. Despite possessing the right skill-set, he is yet to achieve the fluency and command that his talent deserves. Last year he was unlucky to miss out on the semi-final and final thanks to national duty, after scoring his first first-class triple-hundred, but he has enough time to impress this season and jump to the front of the queue once vacancies arise in the Indian middle order.
If Mumbai have to retain the supremacy, they need their bowlers to hunt in packs. Ajit Agarkar and Ramesh Powar continue to impress in patches, but age is catching up with this stoic pair. Dhawal Kulkarni will miss out on the opening match, serving an eight-day ban during the Irani Cup, and Mumbai will feel the pinch against a stubborn Saurashtra middle order. With four away matches scheduled this season, the bowlers have their task cut out.
For years Jaffer, Agarkar and Powar have guarded Mumbai with unflinching resolve. It is now time for the younger generation to start taking over.
What they did last season
It might seems unbelievable now, but Mumbai finished third in their group, with just one outright victory, against Himachal Pradesh at home. In the knockouts, though, they started to seize the opportunities. Haryana were brushed aside through a large first-innings lead in the quarter-final; Abhishek Nayar's battling century along with Powar's delectable, loopy offbreaks gave Delhi no chance in the semi-final.
Mumbai reserved their best for the gripping final, a match full of drama, tension, steel, and excitement. Vinayak Samant's gritty fifty, in his last match for Mumbai, and Aavishkar Salvi's brilliant five-for, got Mumbai a 103-run lead. However, Karnataka's new-ball pairing of R Vinay Kumar and Abhimanyu Mithun reduced Mumbai to 51 for 5 in the second innings. This is when Mumbai showed their big-match temperament, first through a 95-run sixth-wicket stand between Kulkarni and Abhishek Nayar, and then through hostile bowling from a pumped-up Agarkar and Kulkarni to seal a six-run win, leaving Manish Pandey heartbroken after his stylish century.
Men to watch
Rahane, the second-highest run-getter over the last two seasons, will remain Mumbai's bulwark in the top order. The middle-order's inability to build on solid starts only adds weight to Rahane's big centuries, built mainly on his aggressive yet studious style of batting. He will definitely need the support from Rohit. With the elevation of a contemporary like Cheteswhar Pujara into the Test ranks, Rohit is bound to feel the heat, and this season could be a personal quest for him. Harmeet Singh, the young left-arm spinner, who grabbed a seven-wicket haul in his debut match last season, could be the surprise package.
Two months before the last season began, Delhi's biggest ticket and most influential player, Virender Sehwag said he was contemplating leaving his team to play for Haryana. In the last three seasons, this team that belongs to one of the most dysfunctional of the India's major cricket associations has won the title in 2007-08, was knocked out of the League in 2009-09 and reached the semis in 2009-10. The Delhi that turns up this season could feature a team following any of those scripts.
They will begin on the edge itself. Their opening game against Bengal will be the first four-day fixture to be played at the Feroz Shah Kotla after the abandonment of the ODI between India and Sri Lanka last December. Delhi have as many as six current international stars in their side - Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, Virat Kohli and most lately Shikhar Dhawan could each turn up at different points in the season and find their way into the Delhi XI. Or, if distant stars collide, they could all do so simultaneously.
What keeps Delhi's engine going however is the middle-order consisting of Mithun Manhas and Rajat Bhatia, and the strong bowling attack, which will be shepherded by new coach Manoj Prabhakar. He worked with the Delhi team that won its seventh title in 2007-08, but was kept out of the frame for the next two years. Now he replaces Vijay Dahiya who stood down after three years in the job. Prabhakar will work with former India pace bowler Sanjeev Sharma as his assistant. Last week, Prabhakar said his goal was to prepare a team, "with a solid combination of seniors and juniors that can't be pushed for the next five years and who play three Ranji finals in the next four years". Now that would be predictable, but would that be Delhi?
What they did last season
What Delhi didn't do last season was play at the Kotla, their traditional home venue. Delhi played three of four home games at the old Roshanara Club, which can produce a competitive green top but contains no dressing rooms. Scoring first-innings points away in Baroda, Delhi then dropped them to Karnataka at the Roshanara and then suffered defeat against Uttar Pradesh in Lucknow. They returned home for two victories against Saurashtra and Maharashtra, the weaklings of the group. They earned enough bonus points against Maharashtra and so conceding the first innings lead to Bengal couldn't deprive them of a place in the knockouts. Roshanara was lined up for parties in the Christmas - NewYear week and the team had to take its quarter-final to the Palam ground whose track is affectionately called "a road." Once Tamil Nadu's first-innings score of 400 for 5 was turned into 463 all out, and Delhi's middle order kept its head, they were through to the final four. There they ran into the old enemy, Mumbai and Ramesh Powar's 5 for 47 meant that Delhi's campaign was over.
Men to watch
Last season, Parvinder Awana was the team's leading wicket-taker with 29 wickets from 8 matches but it was the tall left-arm spinner Vikas Mishra that made those lamenting the lack of India's spinning options sit up and take notice. Rookie left-arm fast bowler Pawan Suyal could be their trump card. The team will want opener Mayant Tehlan to shake off a poor last season and seize control of the slot vacated by Aakash Chopra's departure to Rajasthan. Keep an eye out for wicketkeeper Punit Bisht, Delhi's top run-scorer last season (543 at 67.87, two hundreds and two fifties) in a line-up chockfull of batsmen.
Haryana have clawed their way back into the Super League after three years and their challenge this season will be to compete, rather than conquer. The coach Ashwini Kumar says as much. "I want us to maintain our place in the Elite League, and am not setting lofty ambitions. We will take the season one game at a time," he says. It was a policy that worked well for his team last year as they dominated the Plate League with three victories and two draws with first-innings leads and a fluent win in the semis to qualify for the Super League quarter-finals. There, they had their moments against eventual-champions Mumbai, but lost the initiative to concede a huge first-innings lead that shut them out of the event.
One of the reasons for the reversal against Mumbai was the failure of their main batsman, Sunny Singh, who went into that game after topping the Elite run-charts with 617 at an average of 88.14. Sunny, along with opener Rahul Dewan, was instrumental in Haryana's Plate dominance, while Sachin Rana and Ankit Rawat offered creditable support. The bowling, led by left-arm seamer Sanjay Budhwar (20 wickets), was adequate if not exceptional. Amit Mishra's presence for two matches when he was away from India duty gave the attack teeth, and his misfortune could be Haryana's gain if he does not make the cut for the South Africa tour.
What they did last season
Sunny set up his prolific season with an attacking triple-hundred as Haryana piled on 546 to dominate the draw against Madhya Pradesh. He struck another ton against Jammu & Kashmir in a low-scoring game that was affected by rain, before Yuzvendra Chahal ensured Haryana secured the first-innings lead again. Budhwar and Rana helped them recover from 92 for 5 on the opening day against Andhra before Joginder Sharma's second-innings century helped them set up a hard-fought win. They finished their league engagements by hammering Kerala by an innings to set up a semi-final clash with Tripura. Mishra proved his worth in that game after the batting failed, bagging 5 for 41 to give Haryana another decisive first-innings lead.
After restricting Mumbai to 55 for 4 in the Elite quarter-final, Haryana's attack stepped off the throttle to let Ajinkya Rahane and Ajit Agarkar script a strong fightback. Despite a composed 71 from Dewan, Haryana stumbled against the might of Mumbai's all-round attack to concede the first-innings lead and bow out of the tournament.
Men to watch
Hemang Badani, the former Tamil Nadu player who has represented India in ODIs, joins Haryana after a period of upheaval following his ICL stint. Badani's presence will bolster the middle order considerably, and if Sunny and Dewan can replicate their form from last season, Haryana's opponents will struggle to bowl them out. Rana and Mishra will miss the opening fixture with injury and India duty respectively, but expect big things from them during the course of the season.
Baroda have been rebuilding over the last two seasons, experimenting with young players as the old guard makes way for new, much like the Indian team. This year marks an almost-final break from the past, with the 22-year old wicketkeeper Pinal Shah replacing Connor Williams as captain in Irfan Pathan's absence. Veteran Jacob Martin has retired, while Satyajit Parab, is expected to at the end of the season.
Coach Mukesh Narula says that Pinal - who led Baroda on the successful tour of Kenya and in the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament - has been steadily groomed for the responsibility. Narula says Pinal has been appointed to have a sense of continuity in the leadership, given that Irfan could be called up for national duty.
Irfan, who topped Baroda's runs and wickets charts last year, is rehabilitating from a persistent back injury and will miss the first two games, according to Narula. They will however be boosted by the presence of Ambati Rayudu, who has left Hyderabad to join them. Narula is confident that his inexperienced team can make the knockouts, though they narrowly missed out in the previous two seasons. They will fancy their chances in a relatively lightweight Group B.
Among the bowlers whose actions came under scrutiny last season, left-arm spinner Rajesh Pawar has left Baroda. Left-arm medium-pacer Sankalp Vohra worked on his action during the off-season and bowled in the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament recently.
What they did last year
They managed only five points from the first four games, getting thrashed by Karnataka after following-on, and conceding a 265-run first-innings lead to Delhi. Irfan rose to the occasion, taking seven wickets and guiding Baroda to victory with an unbeaten half-century against Saurashtra. His seven wickets and centuries from Williams and Shatrunjay Gaekwad set up another win over Maharashtra in Baroda's final match. The late surge was not enough, however, as they fell short of the third-placed Delhi by one point.
Men to watch
Irfan, when he comes back, will be the key. He averaged almost 50 with the bat last year, and took 22 wickets at less than 19 runs each. More than the numbers, it's his presence that uplifts the entire team, according to Narula. MS Dhoni has been voicing India's lack of a fast-bowling allrounder in every forum, a role Irfan performed well in the past, before his bowling fell away alarmingly. This tournament will be crucial for him, especially with the World Cup less than four months away.