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

Manoj Tiwary, with his performances last season, got within a shoulder injury of the Indian team © AFP
Despite two amazing seasons, Bengal are without any trophies and they must be wondering what more they need to do. This season, they face a hard task of picking themselves up after two of their most experienced players - Deep Dasgupta and Rohan Gavaskar along with many others - have defected to the Indian Cricket League (ICL). They have made it to two finals in a row, but somehow managed to stumble at the last hurdle and had Dasgupta and Gavaskar still been with the team, they would have been strong favourites to go the distance again.
Allrounder Laxmi Ratan Shukla, vice-captain last season, has been appointed the captain of the side after he decided to not join the ICL. Shukla, averaging only 32 in first-class cricket, will be looking to make a statement both as a leader and as a batsman. But the major batting attraction once again will be Manoj Tiwary, second in the overall run-getters' list last season. He was unfortunate in getting injured just before what could have been his ODI debut, but is back among the runs after a shoulder injury. Apart from Dasgupta and Gavaskar, Abhishek Jhunjhunwala and Subhomoy Das are their big batting losses to the ICL.
There is good news though: SS Paul, their leading bowler in 2005-06, is back to full fitness after he missed the whole last season with a knee injury. Along with Ranadeb Bose, the highest wicket-taker last season, vice-captain Saurashish Lahiri and Sourav Sarkar, Bengal can still boast of the most solid bowling attack in the country.
With five of their six matches to be played at home, they should be backing themselves to make it to the knockout stage third time running.
What they did last season
Bengal's performance last season was an almost perfect mix of efficiency and flair: while Bose never let them miss Paul, with consistent and stable medium-pace bowling, Tiwary led the batting in typical aggressive style. Sourav Ganguly put in his cameos whenever he was available to play. They were almost perfect because they fell at the last hurdle: unable to overcome a strong and star-studded Mumbai side.
They also showed resilience when in an away game they rolled Hyderabad over for 76 after having fallen behind by 109 in the first innings. They led their pool with 17 points from three outright wins and two first-innings leads. Bose and Tiwary led the statistics and they were solid until the finals.
Men to watch
Tiwary, Bose and Paul would want to continue from where they finished off last season. Tiwary with 796 runs at 99.50, Bose with 57 wickets at 14.22 and Paul with 36 wickets at 25.38 in the previous season; came close to national selection, but face a fresh domestic season ahead. Tiwary still stands with a realistic chance for a call-up anytime, while for Bose and Paul it is another opportunity to put up a statement.

VVS Laxman may play only two games for Hyderabad © AFP
Probably the side most hit by the ICL, Hyderabad go into the season with a new look side with few expectations. They have always been difficult to ignore, hovering in and around the top four, but it would require something special to reach the knockout stage this time. Anirudh Singh, who led their one-day team for part of the last season, Ambati Rayudu, Ibrahim Khaleel, Indershekar Reddy, Kaushik Reddy, Shashank Nag, Alfred Absolem and D Vinay Kumar have defected to the ICL, removing a major chunk of their Ranji side.
VVS Laxman has been appointed captain, but he is unlikely to feature in more than two games, what with India having Tests scheduled against Pakistan and Australia. Laxman, Arjun Yadav, the vice-captain, Pragyan Ojha and Daniel Manohar will be the only four Hyderabad players with the experience of more than 10 first-class matches.
They will be comforted by the schedule - four of their games are at home - and might be tempted to prepare sporting tracks, giving themselves a chance of winning outright.
What they did last season
Finishing third in a tough group represented a satisfactory effort, but it could easily have been a special one. They had the better of some early draws before getting within striking range of the semi-final slot. A calamitous collapse against Bengal - having gained a 109-run lead they fell for just 76 - jeopardised their chances and left them a bit too far behind. A win there could have almost certainly ensured a knockout spot.
Ravi Teja, the dashing opening batsman, was the find of the season with 393 runs at 43.66. Rayudu and Anirudh turned in some consistent performances as well, but won't be featuring in this edition.
Men to watch
Teja is definitely one for the future though he will want to break the century barrier at the earliest opportunity. Medium-pacer MP Arjun made a good impression in his first few games and would be expected to lead the attack this time around. Left-arm spinner Ojha, one touted as good enough for India, will also have to shoulder a big responsibility.


Saurashtra will want Cheteshwar Pujara to continue last season's form © ICC
With a record that has veered from the middling to sloppy, Saurashtra have rarely made an impact in the Indian domestic circles. For long viewed as minnows who could be easily rolled over, Saurashtra are gradually establishing themselves as a side with surprise potential. Relying on budding talent, they have a bigger challenge ahead of them this time: all their games are away from home. They are one of the few sides without too many changes - none defected to the ICL - and as a seasoned observer pointed out, "nothing much has changed in Saurashtra in the last 15 years".
What they did last season
They started poorly, conceding a first-innings lead against Uttar Pradesh, losing to Baroda and Andhra Pradesh and missing out on the lead against Tamil Nadu as well. A couple of inspired home wins against Delhi and Haryana, both engineered by handy left-arm spin from Rakesh Dhurv, provided plenty of cheer and they ended the season with a high-scoring draw against Karnataka. They will hope to get more out of draws - the inability to take the first-innings lead was a concern - and notch up tall totals on their travels. Their batsmen have usually adjusted well to the slow and flat nature of the Rajkot strip, but countering difficult conditions away would be the major challenge.
Shitanshu Kotak and Cheteshwar Pujara - one an experienced hand, the other an emerging one - managed more than 500 runs each last year. Dhurv ended with an impressive 25 wickets, at an average of 21.60, and Sandeep Jobanputra, the new-ball bowler, complemented him with 21.
Men to watch
Pujara is probably the one closest to the getting on the national radar, that too only for the longer format. He has shone bright in the Under-19 levels and displayed the patience and all-round strokeplay to rack up big scores. Ravindra Jadeja, a left-arm spinner who fields athletically, could develop into a bits-and-pieces player in the one-day version. Dhurv and Kamlesh Makvana will lead the spin department.