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
Railways, the 2004-05 champions, are currently languishing in the Plate League; UP, their successors, just about avoided relegation last season. Mumbai, defending champions this year, would look to undo the dubious trend prevalent over the last two years: of champions losing their form completely. Mumbai have already played two matches this season, beating Karachi Urban in the Mohammad Nissar Trophy, but losing outright to Rest of India in the Irani Trophy. On display were flashes of exciting new talent but also some phases of ordinary play.
They are one of the few teams who haven't lost any significant players to ICL. To add to the already existing pool, they have, among others, Ajinkya Rahane, the aggressive opener who scored century on debut and also played the Challengers and Iqbal Abdula, the 17-year-old left-arm spinner who can add up as a handy lower-order batsman. Ajit Agarkar and Ramesh Powar may play more of a role this season, given they both find themselves out of the Indian team currently.
A glaring omission is left-arm spinner Nilesh Kulkarni, who was the leading wicket-taker for Mumbai last season, with 24 wickets at 20.79. There were rumours that he might join ICL, but that did not eventually happen.
They go into the Ranji Trophy a solid team, playing four out of their seven games at home - including the last one, against Saurashtra.
What they did last season
The unthinkable many times over. Going into their fourth match, they didn't have a single point and relegation loomed large over the the side that has won the trophy 36 times. But Gujarat and Rajasthan got a taste of vintage Mumbai cricket in the next two games as they both lost by an innings each, and Mumbai were alive and kicking again. Needing a win with a bonus point in the last match, they travelled to Nasik to play Maharashtra, the younger brother who had managed to beat them in the previous season.
Beating Maharashtra by an innings and 154 runs, Mumbai reached the semi-finals with serious momentum. Just when it seemed they would steamroll any opposition, they found themselves down at 0 for 5, after having secured a first-innings lead against Baroda. That's when veteran wicketkeeper Vinayak Samant came up with a desperate knock of 66, and put up a respectable challenge for Baroda. Their inexperienced bowling line-up then bowled Baroda out for 173 to make it to the finals.
With Sachin Tendulkar, Wasim Jaffer, Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar and Ramesh Powar playing in the final, Bengal were always up against it.
Amol Muzumdar was eighth on the run-getters list and Rohit Sharma 12th, both managing more than 500 runs each, with their averages in the high forties.
Men to watch
Their triumph last season was an ultimate team effort: whenever they found themselves in a hole, one or the other player raised his hand. As a team they look solid this season too, but there are certain individuals who have promised a lot over the last year. Abhishek Nayar, who has two breezy centuries this season already, promises to develop into an aggressive No. 6 and a stable medium-pacer. Abdulla has been given a huge mantle: one to replace Kulkarni and if Powar is out on national duty, he will have to take the lead spinner's role. Rahane and Sahil Kukreja have shown the makings of an effective opening partnership: 381 runs in three innings they have played together.
Punjab are one of the teams severely hit by the Indian Cricket League (ICL): as many as 11 players defected, not all starters but yet a significant chunk. Dinesh Mongia and Reetinder Singh Sodhi, their batting mainstays, are the biggest losses. From being runners-up in 2005 to securing just eight points in six games last season and then losing half the team to ICL, it has been a downhill ride for Punjab.
Pankaj Dharmani, their captain who also keeps wicket, will have to take the added responsibility of leading the inexperienced batting line-up. He will happily accept all the help that comes from Ravneet Ricky, the opener who was a part of the world-champion Under-19 team back in 2000. There are a couple of young batsmen who have been doing well in CK Nayudu Trophy: Sumit Sharma, the 19-year-old who has played for India U19, and Ravi Inder, the Punjab U-22 captain. Karan Goel, the highest run-getter in the domestic Twenty20 last season, will look to carry that form into first-class cricket.
The pace bowling, though, looks strong if VRV Singh can be at his best, in tandem with the workhorse Gagandeep Singh. They will be joined by the 18-year-old Amanpreet Singh, who took four Mumbai wickets on debut last season. Uncapped legspinner Sarabjit Ladda and the 6'4" seamer Manpreet Gony are also highly talked about.
Punjab will play under a new coach this season, their third in three seasons. Gursharan Singh, who played one Test for India and also led Punjab to their only Ranji title in 1992-93, has taken charge of the team and is optimistic, even without those who have joined ICL. Punjab are pooled with last-year's runners-up Bengal and semi-finalists Baroda, but they play five of their six matches at home.
What they did last year
After securing a one-run lead in a low-scoring season starter against Bengal, they lost the match outright. In the second match, after dismissing Gujarat for 208, they couldn't force an outright result. Had they capitalised during these two matches, they could have made it to the semi-finals. They beat Mumbai on first-innings basis in a thriller in the following round, but all they could manage after that was two draws before losing another thriller. In their last match, against Hyderabad, they came within a wicket of winning outright, but Hyderabad just about held on to get the required 137 in the last innings. Individually Dharmani was prolific with 537 runs at 76.71, with three centuries. Luv Ablish was their highest wicket-taker, with 17 wickets at 23.47, but he will be playing in the ICL this year.
Men to watch
When both VRV Singh and Gagandeep are on song, they have the makings of being one of the most potent new-ball pairings in the Ranji Trophy. This will be an important season for VRV Singh, who has not been consistent at the international level. But it will be crucial how Dharmani and Ricky take charge of the young batting line-up. They have been consistent over the years, but this season will demand something extra.
Delhi are a side in desperate need of a boost. Over the last two years, Delhi cricket has lost more than 10 cricketers - and coaches KP Bhaskar and Gursharan Singh - owing mainly to lack of opportunity and financial instability. Now, under the guidance of coach Vijay Dahiya and bowling coach Manoj Prabhakar, Delhi have stuck to the 'old is gold' truism. Virender Sehwag has been named captain, though his recall to the national side means a veteran like Mithun Manhas might now have to lead the side. Gautam Gambhir, and perhaps Ishant Sharma, are also uncertain to play. A one-month pre-season camp didn't throw up any exciting talent and even the fringe players have been in and out of the team.
Dahiya hopes to play all Delhi's home matches on result-oriented pitches; he has identified that as a decisive factor in achieving outright victories. Delhi open their Ranji campaign at home against Rajasthan, a side with two talented medium-pacers, Pankaj Singh and Sanjay Gill. They play in the same group as champions Mumbai and semi-finalists Karnataka. They play only two of their seven games at home.
What they did last season
Delhi finished the 2006-07 third in their group, but with only one outright win from seven games. They took two points from their opening draw against Tami Nadu, batting out the final day on a lifeless Kotla pitch, and two more from a fog-hit game against UP. The trend continued until Saurashtra thumped them by 10 wickets in Rajkot. Next, they snuck a four-run draw against Andhra, picking up two more first-innings points. They won their last game against Haryana by an innings and 18 runs, but it was too late by then.
Rajat Bhatia was Delhi's leading scorer with 512 at 64, but finished 14th on the overall list. Ishant Sharma picked up 29 wickets at 20.10, one of the reasons he made it to the Indian side. It was a better season than the previous, as 10 centurions compared to two indicates.
Men to watch
Aakash Chopra has been in fine form - even being discussed in hushed tones for an India recall. His consistency last season was rewarded with selection for India A against South Africa A in September. He scored an unbeaten 239 in a big victory, and was also handed a newly conceptualised D-category central contract by the BCCI. How well he bats is sure to have an impact on Delhi's showing. Shikhar Dhawan is another fine batsman who has captained Delhi in the limited-overs format and runs from him would be a boon.