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An eye on Ranji - Part 3

The 74th Ranji Trophy, just a week 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

Andhra

A fourth place in Group A last season showed that Andhra were no pushovers. The team rode on the performances of bowling allrounder Syed Sahabuddin, mediumpacer D Kalyankrishna and batsman Prasad Reddy. However, the nucleus of the side has been jolted with the transfer of captain Venugopal Rao to Maharashtra and Sahabuddin's loss to the ICL. MSK Prasad, the former Indian wicketkeeper, is the most familiar name in the squad and he takes over the captaincy as well. A few players in the squad have little or no first-class experience, so the challenge for Andhra would be to keep their head above water against Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabad and Bengal.

What they did last season
The season began on a high as Sahabuddin and Kalyankrishna took centrestage in a low-scoring game in Rohtak, a match otherwise known for Joginder Sharma's hat-trick. Following that 114-run win was a back-to-the-wall draw against Tamil Nadu, thanks to Rao's unbeaten 105, which saved the team from a likely innings defeat after being asked to follow on. Sahabuddin ripped Saurashtra apart with a seven-wicket haul in the third match and their 78-run win in a low-scorer saw them rise to the second spot in the points table at that stage.

Three draws followed, but there was no shortage of excitement. Karnataka managed to hang on with three second-innings wickets in hand, but bigger thrills were in store against Delhi in Vijayawada. Sahabuddin's 95 took Andhra within touching distance of the target of 333, eventually falling short by four runs with just one wicket in hand. Staring at a certain defeat at 144 for 6, Sahabuddin shepherded the tail and made a fist of the target, with Kalyankrishna for company. Their final game, against Uttar Pradesh was a disappointment and they had their batting entirely to blame in an innings defeat. Sahabuddin - with 28 wickets - was the stand-out performer for his all-round efforts, and his absence will be felt this season.

Men to watch Reddy, who topped the run charts with 552, will be expected to shoulder the batting responsibilities with Prasad, in the absence of Rao. Batsman Bodapati Sumanth, who toured England with the Under-19 squad last year, will look to make an impression after only three first-class games. Kalyankrishna, who ended the season as their top wicket-taker with 30 wickets, will have to lead the bowling attack in absence of Sahabuddin.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu were a team in transition in the 2006-07 season, as the results reflected. They only narrowly avoided relegation, winning just one of their seven matches outright. But to judge them by results alone would be taking things out of context. Through the course of the season Tamil Nadu, under a new coach in WV Raman, blooded youngsters, and tried to build a settled team.
The concerns for Tamil Nadu were two fold. Firstly, the batsmen were not putting enough runs on the board, and when they did so they didn't score quickly enough to retain the initiative. Secondly they lacked an experienced, quality spinner. The medium-pace department was fairly well stocked and the opening batsmen, M Vijay and S Anirudha, settled down well as the season unfolded.

Tamil Nadu were also hurt by the absence of S Badrinath and Dinesh Karthik, away playing for India A or India at various times in the season. Neither played a major role in the highlight of Tamil Nadu's season, which came in the inauguralInter-State Twenty20 championships. Tamil Nadu played smart cricket, using several cricketers who were not necessarily part of their first-class set-up and beat more fancied sides to reach the final, where they edged out Punjab in a thriller. Finally they had a national trophy in the silverware cabinet.

The one big worry for the coming season is the loss of D Tamilkumaran to the Indian Cricket League (ICL). Tamilkumaran led the attack and in the absence of L Balaji, who is still in the process of recovery and rehabilitation, Tamil Nadu's pace attack is weakened. Balaji, though not picked in the side initially, could be match fit by around the third match of the season.

This season, they will have the advantage of playing all their games at home.

What they did last season
After kicking off the season with a lifeless draw on a dead pitch at the Feroz Shah Kotla against Delhi, Tamil Nadu drew a game they should have won, against Andhra. Tamil Nadu scored 474 and then bowled Andhra out for only 155. But, after being asked to follow-on, Andhra held on to 327 for 8, denying Tamil Nadu an outright win. Through the season the failure to close out this match would hurt Tamil Nadu.

Then there were points gained from a high-scoring draw against Saurashtra, and the advantage conceded in a draw against Uttar Pradesh. An outright loss to Karnataka, by 10 wickets was just about salvaged with a win against Baroda in Tamil Nadu's last match of the season.

Men to watch
M Vijay had the kind of season that should have pitchforked him to higher honours. With runs in all forms of the game - grinding, stable knocks in first-class cricket that brought 628 runs from 7 matches at 52.33 and freer, clean hitting in limited-overs matches - he should have been a shoo-in for India A selection. Yet somehow he was ignored all season. Vijay possesses a tight technique and a sound temperament, and has shown the ability to switch gears to suit different circumstances. His opening partner, S Anirudha, has the ability to hit the ball as cleanly as anyone in domestic cricket. If he reins in his tendency to have a go at everything on offer, Anirudha could well be a key component in Tamil Nadu's campaign.

R Ashwin began as a batsman, but ended up being the top wicket-taker for Tamil Nadu by taking 31 wickets with his canny offspin, at an average of 16.93. A steady batsman in the lower order, Ashwin has proved to be an attacking and imaginative captain when afforded the chance to lead the side.

Rajasthan

A disappointing 2006-07 season was a big setback for Rajasthan, struggling to gain recognition in the Super League. Recognising the need to spruce up the team's profile and fortunes, the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA) has hired the services of former India coach Greg Chappell and biomechanist Ian Frazer to coach youngsters at the new cricket academy, the Centre of Excellence. The experiment of recruiting foreign players - Vikram Solanki and Kabir Ali from England - didn't quite work out last season and the squad on this occasion lacks a bit of gloss, with Ajay Jadeja too missing from the list. Left-arm spinner Mohammad Aslam has been rewarded for his impressive performances last season with the captaincy, taking over from Jadeja.
What they did last season
Beginning the season with a 138-run victory against Gujarat, Rajasthan's performance plunged so much that they finished at the bottom of the table in Group B. Gagan Khoda, their most experienced player, started off in the right note with centuries in back-to-back games, the second of which came in a drawn match against Hyderabad. However, the batting capitulated to embarrassing proportions against Maharashtra, where they folded up for 86 in the first innings and went down by an innings and 250 runs. A draw against Punjab was a saving grace, but that was followed by two consecutive innings defeats, against Mumbai and Bengal respectively. Jadeja's contributions were pale in comparison to that of his previous season, given that he positioned himself in the late middle-order. With just one outright victory out of six games, Rajasthan just about managed to avoid relegation.

Solanki, usually on the fringes in England's one-day squad, finished with decent returns of 259 runs in five games, but didn't quite blaze away with three-figure scores as was expected of him, while Ali didn't quite acclimatise, managing just two games. Aslam and Pankaj Singh finished with 20 and 13 wickets respectively, while Khoda headed the run chart with 390 runs.

Men to watch
The most recognisable face in the line-up would be Singh, the tall right-arm seamer who was picked for the India Green squad for the Challenger Trophy. Though not of express pace, he has the ability to utilise his height to get bounce and lift. Singh has experience with the India A squad as well, with impressive returns on the tour of Kenya recently. Among the relatively new faces in the squad, Rajasthan's newly-appointed coach KP Bhaskar has identified two talented Under-22 players in Robin Bist and Rajesh Bishnoi as the ones to look out for. Bishnoi, however, hasn't been included in the squad for the first two games, because of his U-22 commitments.

Bhaskar said that one season would be too early to assess the influence of Chappell on Rajasthan's youngsters, and it will be interesting to see how the team takes to innovative exercises like boxing, rock climbing and commando training in the coming months.