'Tough, a learning experience' - newbies look back on Ranji Trophy debut
Coaches, professionals and stars of the Plate Group teams reflect on the season gone by
The introduction of the first-timers from the north-east in the Indian domestic calendar, following the Lodha Committee recommendations being mandated by the Supreme Court, had raised eyebrows.
Many observers feared that the quality of cricket would go down, certain teams would get unfair advantage and some ridiculous records would be set. Not to mention that the addition of six teams from the region along with Bihar, Uttarakhand and Puducherry meant an extra group and additional burden on the scheduling.
Now, with the domestic season reaching its final leg with the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament starting later this week, it's a good time to take stock of the newcomers: how did they fare? What did they learn?Where can they improve?
Click for: 1. Uttarakhand | 2. Bihar | 3. Puducherry | 4. Meghalaya | 5. Sikkim | 6. Manipur | 7. Nagaland | 8. Arunachal Pradesh | 9. Mizoram
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 6, Lost 0, Drawn/NR 2
Highlight of the season: There is a fair bit of uncertainty vis-à-vis the cricket administration in the state with four groups vying for control. For 2018-19, the BCCI ran the affairs with Ratnakar Shetty heading operations. That allowed the latent talent to blossom, and after losing in the Vijay Hazare Trophy opener against Bihar, Uttarakhand went on a winning spree. They were only stopped by eventual Ranji Trophy champions Vidarbha in the quarter-finals, though not before putting on a commendable show. Next year, Uttarakhand will face teams of a much higher calibre, where their ability will be tested more.
Insider account: Bhaskar Pillai, coach
Big lesson learnt: When I took over, my biggest worry was the guys had played only T20 cricket. So I wasn't really sure how they would shift gears in the four-day format. But as the tournament progressed, there were people who showed signs of staying at the wicket. They proved to be good learners, they wanted to prove themselves because it had been a long wait. That's why I am very happy, very satisfied, and moving forward there is a lot to gain in the coming seasons.
Reason for confidence: I wasn't very sure if we were cut out for the main league but the way the guys shaped up against Vidarbha in the quarter-final and showed no signs of nervousness gave me confidence. Most of the other quarter-finals didn't even last five days, we stood for five days. The way we batted on the first day against [Rajneesh] Gurbani and Umesh [Yadav], to recover from 20  for 3 to 140  for 3. Had we not lost three early wickets or had we won the toss and bowled first, maybe we could have had an outside chance. Or maybe if we were playing some other opponent, Kerala or some other team, maybe the result could have been different.
Change for next season: I think one area we struggled in was the spin department. Our main force was our pacers. So there was a lot of load on them and by the time we reached the knockouts, they were a little jaded, a little tired. I think if we can have two good spinners in our team, that would do the trick.
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 6, Lost 1, Drawn/NR 1
Highlight of the season: The highlights of their season were topping the Plate Group in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and making the quarterfinals, and Ashutosh Aman's record haul of wickets in the Ranji Trophy. Bihar will have the opportunity to rub shoulders with higher-ranked teams in the one-day format now, but even in the Ranji Trophy, they have made a case to be the second best team in the Plate Group, and will eye qualification once again next season.
Insider account: Subroto Banerjee, coach
Big lesson learnt: How to approach a game, how to stay in a positive state of mind to get the desired results, and how to execute your plans. These are the things the team has learnt this year. Technically also, I have sharpened the batsmen and the bowlers and they have shown significant improvement.
Reason for confidence: The result was the biggest positive. We came No. 2. If the match against Puducherry hadn't been washed out, who knows, we would have been at the top of the table. The thing is you have to give them some time. We were playing after 18 years. So you cannot go and straightaway smash the tournament. I know there is a huge difference in playing against Meghalaya and playing against Karnataka. But in India culture, cricket is inherited. So I am sure the boys will adapt quickly.
Change for next season: I haven't thought about the next season yet. Overall, we have to lift our standards and we have to match up to higher levels. We have a long way to go but this team will shape up properly in another three-four years.
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 4, Lost 0, Drawn/NR 4
Highlight of the season: They lost a bunch of players at the start of the season, a blow that would cripple any team, but more so a new team just coming together. However, Puducherry showed great spirit and resilience to overcome that hurdle and finish third in their group in both the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Ranji Trophy. For a while in the Ranji Trophy, they looked like they would top their group, but rain robbed them of that opportunity in two crucial matches - against Uttarakhand and Bihar. They could be an even more formidable unit the next season if the players that were suspended make their way back to the team.
Insider account: Pankaj Singh, fast bowler
Big lesson learnt: Doing well as a unit. Seven-eight players were not able to play the whole season and despite that, we gelled as a team. I think as a cricketer, and as a human also, we should be always ready because unexpected things can happen in cricket and life. To stay together and fight the situation, I think the team did that.
Reason for confidence: Although the team was playing for the first time, many players are playing some kind of cricket in other states, or leagues or even club matches, and they are very eager to do well. They had been waiting for a long time for their chance. They played and performed and proved that they are good at this level, they can play first-class cricket and perform. And the professionals they picked - Abhishek Nayar, Paras Dogra, me - and the team they prepared and the coaching staff of Aavishkar Salvi, [Dishant] Yagnik and others, I think it was quite like you are playing in the elite group.
Change for next season: After the first match, eight to nine players were changed and we had to start with new players. Hopefully that won't happen next year.
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 4, Lost 2, Drawn/NR 2
Highlight of the season: Their most significant moment of the league phase might have come when they piled on 826 for 7 declared against Sikkim - the highest score of the Ranji Trophy this season with Puneet Bisht registering the only triple-century of the season as well. Meghalaya's bowlers showed promise, and the professionals led the way while batting. They might not be up to challenging for the top spot in the Plate Group yet, but they can lay claim to being the foremost among the northeastern states that debuted in the Ranji Trophy.
Insider account: Puneet Bisht, wicketkeeper-batsman
Big lesson learnt: The experience of playing with the red ball. In domestic cricket in India, red-ball cricket is the most important. So the players are very keen to learn how to bat against the red ball, how to bat session by session.
Reason for confidence: That we finished fourth, and above us were only Uttarakhand, Bihar and Puducherry. The players are very keen to play the Ranji Trophy, they want to play for the next ten years. They want to work hard. Some of the players want to play off-season cricket in Delhi because in the northeast there are not many local tournaments.
Another positive is our opener Raj Biswa, who scored more than 500 runs . That's a really good achievement for someone playing his first season. Our bowlers did very well. Aditya Singhania, the left-arm spinner, took almost 30  wickets. So the boys are really keen to improve.
Change for next season: Ground fielding is an important tool. And fitness is very important. Some guys broke down after two-three games because they are not used to such workloads. So I would like to see our guys putting extra effort in fielding and fitness from the off-season itself.
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 4, Lost 3, Drawn/NR 1
Highlight of the season: Milind Kumar put Sikkim on the radar almost single-handedly. He scored 1331 runs, and threatened VVS Laxman's season record of 1415 for a while. But more than the volume of runs were the situations in which Milind got them: 261 to take Sikkim from 15 for 5 to 372 and an innings win in the first game. In the very next match, 224 to take the team from 30 for 4 to 374. For good measure, he even picked up 22 wickets in eight matches (he had 11 wickets in 29 matches for Delhi before this). He was the main reason Sikkim went from being punching bags in the Vijay Hazare Trophy to being competitive - even forcing teams to alter their strategies to be more 'Milind-proof' with their scores.
Insider account: Milind Kumar, middle-order batsman [highest scorer in the tournament with 1331 runs]
Big lesson learnt: The biggest learning was how to play according to the match situation. The same players I played with in the first match had evolved a lot by the time the tournament ended. Earlier, the batsmen didn't have the temperament to stay at the wicket, they used to lose hope. But, as the tournament progressed, they learnt how you respond in different situations. The batsman started scoring runs, started to defend better, learnt how to see off the new ball and also had big partnerships with me.
Reason for confidence: Most of the guys were playing after a gap of 3-4 years but it was an achievement to win four out of eight games. We have done so well with only a couple of months in our hands, that means we can do even better. If the players get regular practice, regular matches, they are capable of doing well. The guys are working really hard and if you give them some time, they will definitely do well.
Change for next season: Batting and bowling are the main skills, those you have to anyway improve upon. But fielding is totally in our hands. If we can improve our fielding, we can change the game.
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 3, Lost 5, Drawn/NR 0
Highlight of the season: Their finest moment, perhaps, came in a defeat, against Bihar. Bowled out for 156, they kept Bihar to 257 and then mounted a strong second-innings resistance. It was going well at 184 for 2, but a collapse meant they set Bihar only 138 to win. They continued to fight, but Bihar squeezed out a three-wicket win. While the bowlers did well on the whole, the batting was thin after the top order. Yashpal Singh was a rock at the top, and the late entry of Mayank Raghav gave hope, but Manipur will need more of the middle-order to contribute runs next season.
Insider account: Yashpal Singh, middle-order batsman
Big lesson learnt: Our batting was really poor. So our coach and I worked with the boys. They were trying but it wasn't happening. Everybody has learnt by watching on TV. So it's also not fair to expect a lot from them. So we expected that much only so that they also don't feel the pressure.
Reason for confidence: Our bowlers did really well. And that helped us in motivating our batsmen also, by saying if the bowlers can do it, why can't the batsmen? And a couple of guys stepped up as well. All these things take a bit of time but the good thing is that the team spirit was really good, the attitude was good. And I am sure things will improve in the coming seasons.
Change for next season: If the BCCI can provide the grounds to the teams that don't have any right now, that would be really great. The ground we have for our camps is in a bad condition. Rainy season is also a bit longer here, that also hampers.
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 2, Lost 4, Drawn/NR 2
Highlight of the season: Given the relative quality of the batsmen and the often-iffy pitches, the bowlers had a better time than the batsmen, but Nagaland suffered from not having a strike bowler. Abrar Kazi's all-round show was immense, with 34 wickets and 814 runs, but that he was the highest wicket-taker and run-getter spoke of inadequate support. Captain Rongsen Jonathan ensured the season ended with something to cheer for, getting centuries in successive matches against Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh and Puducherry.
Insider account: Rongsen Jonathan, middle-order batsman
Big lesson learnt: The players had never experienced Ranji Trophy, they had never played four-day games. But now they know exactly how it is. I personally did very well and was happy to guide others. In fact, after this season, we are looking for an academy where we can have a proper camp for two-three months and I can guide them further.
Reason for confidence: We are starting various inter-district tournaments, we are starting a coaching academy for all the state players, we are going to have talent hunts in the state. Since the Ranji Trophy is here, everyone is very interested. People are coming out wanting to play. That's a very good sign. So next season we should have a very good team.
Change for next season: Right now we have very few youngsters. I would like to see more and more youngsters coming up because they will be the future of the team.
Team: Arunachal Pradesh
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 0, Lost 7, Drawn/NR 1
Highlight of the season: Arunachal Pradesh had opted for only two professionals, but neither of Kshitiz Sharma and Samarth Seth could deliver in the manner the other professionals did for their teams. That not a single batsman crossed 500 runs in the season and no bowler took more than 25 wickets either underscored Arunachal's struggles. Deendayal Upadhyay, their highest-wicket taker with 23 strikes at 16.82, played only four games.
Insider account: Sandeep Kumar Thakur, medium-pacer
Big lesson learnt: We got to know the value of fitness. I personally had put on a lot of weight, but our trainer and physio are very friendly and motivating. The physio used to tell how to prevent injuries, how to overcome injuries. We also realised that we needed to work on our fielding. Whatever the mistakes we made this season, we have to work on that.
Reason for confidence: When we look at the professional players and see them scoring runs, it gives us the confidence that we can also do it. This time we didn't get enough time to prepare, it all happened so quickly. Now there is one year's time and we are geared up to improve.
Change for next season: This was our first season, so our association also didn't have much of an idea. The professional players came and performed. If there are more professionals in the next season, the team would be more balanced.
Overview in numbers: Played 8, Won 0, Lost 7, Drawn/NR 1
Highlight of the season: Mizoram ended below Arunachal on the points table - the only match the two teams didn't lose was when they played each other - but they might feel disappointed about it. Mizoram would have banked heavily on Taruwar Kohli to deliver, and he did produce 826 runs, but apart from fellow professional Akhil Rajput, not an established name in domestic cricket by any means, Kohli had limited support - no other batsman crossed even 150 runs for the season. The bowling was barely adequate, but it paled in front of the batting woes, and Mizoram will have to fix that aspect with some haste.
Insider account: Taruwar Kohli, top-order batsman
Big lesson learnt: The experience of playing against the likes of Pankaj Singh. For young fast bowlers to watch him bowl, I think that was a great experience. The same goes for the batsmen, to watch the professionals bat, score hundreds. I think it was a very good learning experience for a youngster to understand how to score a hundred, how to build an innings. I think the guys learned these things really well.
Reason for confidence: Most of the players are very disciplined, they are very focused. That's why they had so much improvement. They normally used to play T20s. They have now learnt that it's important to play the longer version as well. And back in Mizoram, they have immediately introduced a tournament of two-day matches. The guys have started to play a lot more cricket now. In past, they used to play for only two-to-three months. They have started to take cricket as a career. So the trend is slowly changing.
Change for next season: I think the thinking in the first season was to have some experience, have a feel of it. The professionals or the support staff were not pushing them so hard, because we all knew it was the first season and it was not going to be that easy. But the boys need to pull their socks up in the coming season. We are trying to change that thinking now, okay you have got the experience of playing now at this level. Now it's taking up to the next level, becoming a good competitive side and our vision should be to qualify, not just participate. The players should be aiming to play for India and as a team, we should be aiming to qualify.
Additional inputs by Saurabh Somani
Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo