The 74th Ranji Trophy, just two days away, promises to be one of the most unpredictable, what with many strong teams left depleted after the exodus to the Indian Cricket League (ICL). In a five-part preview series, Cricinfo profiles the Super League teams
Maharashtra has one of the most professional set-ups in Indian domestic cricket; with central contracts for players, a shrewd and previously successful coach in Chandrakant Pandit, a clear vision of developing home-grown players with the assistance of professional imports, and a yearning to play at smaller centres. It is a misfortune though, that they face the tough task of starting the Ranji Trophy with 10 uncapped players in their squad.
Sairaj Bahutule, their captain last season, had to undergo a surgery on his shoulder during the off-season, and Maharashtra have chosen to go slow on him. Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who has had a knee surgery, also misses out on the first match. Apart from the two, S Sriram and Dheeraj Jadhav have moved to the ICL, leaving them with a depleted side.
Venugopal Rao, the Andhra captain last season, has moved to Maharashtra and has been named the captain for the first match. It hasn't yet been decided who will lead the side when Bahutule is back. Rao will be the batsman that Maharashtra will look up to, with only Yogesh Takawale and Harshad Khadiwale having any experience at this level - that too for one season.
They will look for inspirational bowling from Munaf Patel, who will be eager to earn a recall to the national squad.
What they did last season
They would have wanted more than the seven points they scored from six games, especially after they had posed a threat to big teams in 2005-06, securing an outright win against Mumbai along the way. Their 2006-07 campaign started with a dull draw against Hyderabad, but in the next match, they walloped Rajasthan by an innings and 250 runs in Ratnagiri. Then, in a high-scoring draw, they ended up 98 short of Punjab's first-innings total of 550. They were on the wrong side of a draw once again when Bengal bowled them out for 215 and scored 325. In their penultimate match they let Gujarat score 369, and the maximum they could get was two points, which they did by putting up 450 runs. In their final match, Maharashtra were defeated by Mumbai, who extracted revenge for last season by defeating them by an innings and 154 runs to ensure a clear semi-final path.
Kanitkar ended up with 503 runs at 71.85 and Sriram scored 424 at 70.66. Takawale was the surprise package with 351 runs in seven innings.
Men to watch
Munaf and Rao will obviously have to shoulder most of the responsibility at the start of the season. Once Bahutule and Kanitkar are fit, they should make a fairly competitive unit. Takawale, who played as a batsman only, will be the keeper this season as Satyajit Satbhai has been dropped after an ordinary season.
Ever since they were relegated to the Plate League in 2002-03, they had made it to the semi-finals of the Plate League each year, but somehow never crossed that barrier. Last season though, they reversed the trend by defeating Assam to enter the final and earn a right to play in the Super League in the 2007-08 season.
Veterans Debasis Mohanty and Shiv Sunder Das are the two most recognisable faces in the team, whose performances usually revolve around the two. Das and Niranjan Behera, who played the Challenger Trophy this season, are the two main batsmen in the top order. Captain Pravanjan Mullick, who can double up as a handy medium-pace bowler, provides the stability to the middle order.
Mohanty got enough help last season from new-ball partner Sukanta Khatua and offspinner Sanjay Satpathy. Behera and Mullick with their part-time stuff give the bowling line-up an efficient look.
What they did last season
Their reversal in the semi-final was the pinnacle of their performance, especially Mohanty's nine-wicket haul. After he had reduced Assam to 235 in the first innings, he saw his side fall short by two runs. But in the second innings, with figures of 4 for 43, he bowled Assam out for 120, setting up an easy target. They couldn't keep up the intensity in the final and lost to Himachal Pradesh by nine wickets.
The other highlight for Orissa came in their last league match when Das hit the first triple-century in the Ranji Trophy since 2000-01. They also gained a first-innings lead in each of their matches, and an innings win against Tripura to boot.
Men to watch
Das and Mohanty will obviously be the ones to carry them in the big league. But Behera showed a lot of promise last season. His 509 runs at 50.90, the sixth-highest aggregate in the Plate League, were instrumental in Orissa's ascent to the Super League. With the big boys in the Twenty20 matches, he sneaked into the top-10 in both the batting and bowling charts. Khatua, in his second season, got 16 wickets at 15.12 last season and could be one to watch out for this season too.
Fierce inter-club rivalry, good infrastructure - there are seven cricket grounds in one city - and flow of talent, has seen Baroda become a solid Ranji team. Their semi-final appearance last season was their second in a row. And they managed this despite Irfan Pathan's selection to the India squad and Zaheer Khan's to Mumbai.
But their bowling attack for this season has been depleted after losing seamer Rakesh Patel to the ICL. This means that Irfan Pathan Snr will have to shoulder more responsibilities in the fast-bowling department. Yusuf Pathan and Rajesh Pawar, the spinners, got higher honours - Pawar was selected to the Test squad on the tour to Bangladesh, while Yusuf played in the final of the ICC World Twenty20.
Their batting line-up last season was led by senior batsmen Jacob Martin and Connor Williams. Baroda are yet to announce their squad because they play their first match only in the second round, which is a good 15 days away. They will be coached by Paras Mhambrey, who has previously coached Bengal to two successive Ranji Trophy finals.
What they did last season
Along with Bengal, they were the most consistent teams in the Ranji Trophy last season. They led their group going into the semi-finals. In the semi-finals, they had Mumbai down at 0 for 5, but somehow let them off the hook.
Their campaign last season started off with a bang when they bowled Karnataka out for 85 on the first morning and won the match by seven wickets. They followed it up with a clinical dismantling of Saurashtra by an innings and 19 runs.
They folded for 244 in Delhi and conceded a first-innings lead. They were in danger of playing out an average season after an exceptional start, after narrowly missing a first-innings lead against Andhra. Two solid performances followed and after outright wins over Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, they sat on top the points table with four wins, which was more than any other team.
Then came an outright loss to Tamil Nadu against the run of play, which took away the momentum going into the semi-finals against Mumbai, where a first-innings collapse for 142 hurt them even though they bowled them out for 145 in the second.
Men to watch
Pawar, the fourth-highest wicket-taker last season with 36 wickets, is the key member of the team with his left-arm spinners expected to have an impact. Among the batsmen, apart from Williams and Martin, Baroda will look for a good season from Pinal Shah, the wicketkeeper-batsman, who had an average season with the bat last year but is an aggressive middle-order batsman.