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
One of the strongest contenders for this season's title, Karnataka have been boosted by the return of Anil Kumble, who will lead the team, and Rahul Dravid. Apart from the duo who will be available for two games, they will bank on the experience of Sunil Joshi and Yere Goud - who joined Karnataka last season after 11 years with Railways. Although they have lost Robin Uthappa to the Indian team, they have a formidable batting line-up in C Raghu, B Akhil, Thilak Naidu and Barrington Rowland, the men who took Karnataka to the final four in the last season.
Joshi, as always, will lead the bowling attack, but he can turn to a capable few to share the burden. There is KP Appanna, the talented left-arm spinner making rapid strides, and R Vinay Kumar, the medium-pace bowler who took 27 wickets last season. They will be bolstered by the presence of NC Aiyappa, the medium-pacer who has recovered from an injury that restricted him to just two games in the previous season. In addition they have Akhil, who blossomed into a fine medium-pace bowler last season and Raghu, who picked 10 wickets with his offspin.
Karnataka have a new coach in Vijay Bharadwaj after Venkatesh Prasad became the national bowling coach and his successor Rajesh Kamat was pouched by the ICL. Bharadwaj headed a 13-day camp - where batting and fielding sessions combined with drills and exercise formed the daily routine - at the Infosys campus in Mysore as part of the build-up to the upcoming season.
What they did last season
A bad start, a strong comeback, and a tame end - they experienced all in their campaign last season. They lost to Baroda in under three days in the first game, collapsing for 85 in the first innings and being bowled out for 283 in the second. Then they beat Haryana comprehensively in the second match with Uthappa and Rowland adding 211 runs for the first wicket in just 32 overs to set up the declaration before Joshi and Appanna spun them to victory. In the next game, against Uttar Pradesh, Vinay Kumar took a five-for to set up an easy target. In a tense chase of 122 runs, a half-century from Raghu got them home with just two wickets to spare.
They played out a high-scoring draw against Delhi before batting failure reared its ugly head in the next game against Andhra. Shot out for 111 in the first innings, they held on to a draw, reaching 204 for 7, while chasing 410, in their second innings. At the start of the new year they bounced back strongly with a crushing 10-wicket win over Tamil Nadu, courtesy a smashing 159 from Uthappa and a seven-wicket match haul from Joshi and followed it up with a facile draw against Saurashtra. But, in the semi-final against Bengal, they imploded, making just 89 in the first innings and despite posting 455 in the second, they couldn't stop Bengal from romping to a comfortable six-wicket win.
Men to watch
Apart from the usual suspects, Raghu and Appanna are the ones to watch out for. Raghu, a graceful right-hand middle-order batsman, scored 537 runs at 35.8 in the last season and one can expect him to up the ante in the season ahead. Appanna, with his classical left-arm spin, has been the impressive one and this season could see him come out of Joshi's shadow.
Champions one season and fighting relegation the next, over the last two seasons, Uttar Pradesh gave Pakistan a run for their money in terms of unpredictability. What's in store this season? A tournament that they start without their key pace bowlers: Shalabh Srivastava who has moved to ICL, and RP Singh and Praveen Kumar, who are a part of the Indian team as of now. Ashish Winston Zaidi, their manager this season and the canny pro with the ball, retired last season and there is a void left in the bowling department.
There is a freshness to the batting line-up, with captain Mohammad Kaif and vice-captain Suresh Raina leading a young line-up. Gyanendra Pandey, their coach this season, and Rizwan Shamshad, the middle-order veterans, also retired last season. Tanmay Srivastava, who has impressed with India Under-19, Ravikant Shukla, former India U-19 captain, and Shivakant Shukla are exciting young prospects for them.
The spin department looks good with Piyush Chawla and left-arm orthodox Praveen Gupta, but the bowling still is a fickle unit. If Kumar and Chawla are available to play, they look a respectable attack, but without them it should be a struggle for them.
They play only one game at home this season, which could be a blessing in disguise because most of the wickets in UP encourage draws.
What they did last season
Neither their batsmen nor their bowlers ever hit their straps last season, struggling to put up big, sufficient-to-bat-once totals with the bat, or running through the opposition with the ball. After a first-innings lead against Saurashtra, a points-less draw and an outright loss, the low point came in the away match against Haryana when they were bowled out for 71. Following that innings defeat, they just about hung on for two points against Tamil Nadu, who after having fallen behind in the first innings, set UP 129 to win in 25 overs. A positive start was followed by a collapse and at seven-down, Rohit Prakash and Shivakant batted out 7.3 overs to ensure a draw.
After being outplayed by Baroda, they had only four points from six games and were one false step from emulating Railways by getting relegated in their title defence. In their last match, they put up an inspired show in beating Andhra by an innings and staving off what would have been a humiliating descent to Plate League.
Men to watch
Kaif will know a big season with the bat will do him no harm and so will Raina. Two seasons ago, along with Kumar and Shalabh, they were the main architects of UP's revival from a hopeless situation mid-season. Shalabh is out, Kumar may or not be available - the same can be said of Raina and Chawla. And with other seniors retired, this is the season for any of the young brigade to stand up and make his presence felt. Tanmay, Ravikant and Shivakant will want to take up more responsibility this season.
Himachal Pradesh made their way up to the Ranji Super League after they beat Railways by seven wickets on the final day of their Plate League semi-final in Dharamsala. Then they brushed aside Orissa, who also qualified to the next division, by nine wickets in the final. The winning formula was simple - everyone contributed. The top order batsmen all scored runs and the bowlers, led by talented left-arm spinner Vishal Bhatia, did enough to ensure HP didn't lose a game last season.
Former India offspinner Sarandeep Singh's move from Punjab to HP proved successful as his 28 wickets and useful runs down the order indicate.
Young players such as wicketkeeper Maninder Bisla, Paras Dogra and Manish Gupta were crucial last season, but the competition will be much tougher this year. How these youngster adapt, and how they are led by the seniors, will determine HP's fortunes.
What they did last season
HP topped the Plate League Group B table with 13 points as a result of two wins and three draws. They opened the season with a 342-run win over Jharkhand, based on an all-round effort. Sarandeep led a spirited fightback with a five-for after they had conceded the first-innings lead to Orissa in the next game at Dharamshala, but it proved to have come a bit too late in the day. In the next game, a draw against Tripura at home again, a Bhatia-inspired HP moved to the top of the Group B table and followed it with a thumping win over Jammu & Kashmir by an imposing innings and 75 runs at Jammu. With that win, they ended joint leaders with Orissa in Group B. They expectedly earned two points from the drawn encounter in Delhi, but were unable to force a result on the final day.
Nevertheless, they were in the semi-finals, where they beat Railways by seven wickets. HP cruised to the Plate Group title after they kept Orissa to 317, put up 477 in their first innings, and shot Orissa out for 216, before rattling off 58 in 9.4 overs. Dogra was HP's best batsman with 528 runs at 48, with two hundreds, while Bhatia was the highest wicket-taker in the Plate League, with 38 scalps.
Men to watch
The 25-year-old Bhatia would look to carry on with his form. His contributions last season were key to HP's doing so well; his 6 for 71 helped dismiss Orissa and a further six-wicket haul a week later mopped up Tripura's tail as HP moved to the top of the Group B table. His eight wickets set up a big win over Railways and a fourth six-wicket haul helped spin HP to the title win. Sandeep Sharma, the experienced captain, enjoyed a successful 2006-07 season with the bat and will be expected to do the same this season, as the stakes get higher.