They're the men who made India's domestic season crackle. Here's our annual pick of the cream of the first-class crop.


Suresh Raina was UP's star player of the season © Getty Images
Suresh Raina
Middle-order batsman, part-time offspinner, Uttar Pradesh, Rest of India
by Sidharth Monga
The merits of choosing brash young talents with fresh legs and minds over proven, middle-aged performers are fodder for an age-old debate. Suresh Raina provides a compelling argument in favour of youth. If a 19-year-old can bat with the composure of a veteran, act as a firewall in the inner circle while fielding, and bowl handy offspinners, there's no point waiting for him to mature. Raina, an economics and sociology student, was 18 when he was selected for the training camp for Indian probables in Bangalore last year. His work ethic, dedication - he used to practise on Sundays when the others were busy exploring the city - and natural talent made him an immediate favourite with national coach Greg Chappell and Rahul Dravid, the captain-in-waiting.
What he did this season
UP started the season in gloom, losing their first match outright and ending up on the wrong side of the draw in the second. Raina was one of the few reasons the side had for cheer back then. He scored 75 and 51 in those two games and went on to make 620 runs at 68.88 in the tournament. He scored only one century, but failed to cross 50 in only one match, against Andhra Pradesh in Anantpur where he made two forties. He was always there when UP needed him: his five half-centuries included two in the final and one in the semi-final.
In his own words
Lessons learned
"We had a fine combination this time, and it was great playing with Mohammad Kaif and Piyush Chawla. I never let up on the pace I scored runs at, but I was not fully confident of my back-foot play. I worked on it a lot, and did well during the season."
Memorable performances
"The century against Punjab was definitely special. It was our third game of the season and we were still looking for our first win. My knock helped to set the game up, and we even enforced a follow-on, but it was unfortunate we couldn't seal the game."
Areas that need improvement
"Twice I missed centuries, against Mumbai in the semi and against Bengal in the final. It wasn't that I threw my wicket away or anything, but I would like to make sure that I convert fifties into hundreds and hundreds into big ones."
Inside view - Rajinder Singh Hans, UP coach
"Suresh Raina is a complete batsman. He was easily one of the best on the domestic circuit this season. He is naturally talented, athletic, and a very enthusiastic cricketer. When he joined us, we were not really doing well, but his youthful exuberance motivated others around him too. He was very important to the success of UP, and should go on to become an important member of the Indian team too."
Outside view - Ranadeb Bose, Bengal opening bowler
"Suresh has been a good pal for some time now. We played for India Seniors in the Challenger Trophy in 2004 and in the India A team against Pakistan in 2005. He is a very good and compact batsman who plays all the shots; that makes it difficult for a bowler to work out a strategy against him. One needs to be patient and bowl a tight line and length and expect him to commit an error, but since he is so level-headed even that may not work.


Sandip Maniar has carried the Saurashtra bowling attack for the last two years © Paresh Joshi
Sandip Maniar Opening bowler, lower-order batsman, Saurashtra
by Haresh Pandya
For a region that produced pace bowlers like Amar Singh and L Ramji in the first half of the 20th century, Saurashtra's cupboard has been so bare since that apart from Karsan Ghavri in the 1970s, no new-ball bowler from there has managed a national headline, let alone been a contender for the India side. It is against this backdrop that Sandip Maniar's performances in the last couple of seasons must be viewed. A medium-pacer capable of bowling long spells, Maniar combines a stock outwinger with stinging yorkers. He has carried the Saurashtra bowling attack for the last two years, taking 64 wickets in only 12 matches at an impressive sub-20 average.
What he did this season
Maniar, with 38 wickets in the Ranji Trophy, has been instrumental in elevating Saurashtra to the Elite Group. His 7 for 81 and 3 for 52 helped Saurashtra win the crucial tie against Goa by 10 wickets and earn five vital points. He followed that up with 5 for 46 against Himachal Pradesh, which took Saurashtra to the semi-final against Madhya Pradesh, where he was the wrecker-in-chief with 5 for 94, helping his team gain the vital first-innings lead. And in the final against Rajasthan, he took 5 for 59 in the first innings, paving the way for an innings win for his side.
In his own words
Lessons learned
"I learned the value of line and length; and also the importance of keeping your cool when you are at the receiving end or don't get wickets. I had been working persistently on my outswinger and during this season it became more pronounced. I've become more aggressive in my approach now."
Memorable performance
"Seven for 83 against Goa at Rajkot. Having lost to Orissa and Vidarbha, we had to win this match at any cost and try to get five points to stay in the tournament. After our batsmen scored 439, we had to bowl our hearts out to make Goa follow on. It wasn't easy, considering the batting-friendly pitch and Goa's reasonably strong batting line-up."
Areas that need work
"I have to perfect my inswinger. I need to use it as a surprise weapon with my outswinger. Also, I need to have more variations."
Inside view - Debu Mitra, Saurashtra coach
"He is a genuine medium-pacer: he has a nice action, he swings the ball prodigiously, and he is very good bowling close to the stumps. Rather than the outswinger, it's the odd inswinger which appears to be his main weapon. He ought to be one of the first choices for the West Zone team for the Duleep Trophy next season."
Outside view - Ajay Jadeja, Rajasthan captain
"I'm highly impressed with Maniar. He is a hard-working bowler with a lot of patience. Though he isn't tearaway fast, he swings it nicely while maintaining a good line and length. You've to be very watchful against him. He is one of those bowlers talented enough to take wickets regularly even on a bad day. He can be quite a handful on a helpful track."
Shib Paul Opening bowler, lower-order batsman, Bengal, East Zone, Board President's XI
by Nagraj Gollapudi


Shib Paul's 5 for 53 in the semi-final was a fine effort © Getty Images
Large and lumbering, at first sight Shib Sankar Paul may not seem to fit the popular conception of a fast bowler. But he has, over the years, acquired a fine understanding of the nuances of the trade - accuracy, consistency and variation. Bowling off a short run-up and with a refined, open-chested action, Paul derives his pace from his big shoulders. Considering that the bulk of his bowling happens on flat, dusty surfaces, he has developed a few useful variations, among them a lethal incutter which left a few batsmen gasping last season. Never one to shy away from bending his back, Paul can swing it both ways with both new and old balls and has added the bouncer to his armoury as well.
What he did this season
Bengal needed a powerful start to wash away the misery of the previous season, which they finished on the verge of relegation. Paul didn't have too much of a role in the drawn first game - he took a solitary wicket. Bengal lost the toss on a turning track in their second match, at Delhi, but Paul bowled with heart, accuracy and consistency to claim nine wickets and lead his side to a 10-wicket win.
He maintained those virtues through the rest of the season. His six wickets in the crucial league match against reigning champions Railways took Bengal into the knockouts. His 5 for 53 in the semi-final against Baroda earned his side the first-innings lead that saw them through. His four wickets in the final may have gone in vain, but he did finish in fifth place on the wicket-takers' list for the tournament, with 36. Paul also did his bit to get East Zone into the Duleep Trophy final, with 13 wickets in that tournament - the second-highest.
In his own words Lessons learned
"The last two years have been very good for me, especially after the wonderful 2003-04 season where I got 50 wickets. A stint at the MRF Academy in the off season, and then Paras bhai [Mhambrey] coming in as our coach have made me understand my bowling much better. The seniors told me about my falling leading arm while bowling. I have tightened that up, which has made me more accurate. There is more variety in my bowling now, and my bounce has improved a lot, so I can bowl with both the new ball as well as the old one."
Memorable performance
"Just before the semi-final against Baroda at home, I was down with heavy fever. The team management felt I shouldn't risk playing, but I insisted. My mental toughness helped. I bowled three spells of eight or nine overs each and got five wickets in the first innings."
Areas that need work
"I need to carry forward this consistency, bowl longer spells, maintain the accuracy of line and length."
Inside view - Paras Mhambrey, Bengal coach
"He has been outstanding, given the sort of wickets we played on, and considering that we played a majority of our games away. You need your strike bowler to deliver at the start of a game and he did that consistently. The most important changes from the time I played against him when he made his debut are that he is more confident now and can think a batsman out."
Outside view - Wasim Jaffer, Mumbai opener
"He is more intelligent now and can work the batsman out. Also, he is accurate and never loses his calm, and he tries to bowl in line when things are going against him. He is not an express pace bowler but his pace is good enough to keep the batsman thinking."
Praveen Kumar Medium-pace bowler, floating batsman, Uttar Pradesh, Central Zone
by Sidharth Monga
One from UP's youth brigade, the 19-year-old Kumar is an awkward-looking medium-pacer who seems to derive pleasure from doing exactly what batsmen don't like him to do. Kumar has the ability to keep bowling tirelessly on the most unresponsive Indian pitches and from Ashish Zaidi, his veteran team-mate, he has learned the art of bowling cutters and pace variations. On a slow wicket, for instance, he doesn't go all out but concentrates on bowling stump to stump, bringing the swing and cutters into play. His batting down the order is all robustness and disdain: he puts his strong shoulders wholeheartedly behind his big shots and isn't bothered about how good or ugly he looks in the process. This season, empty stadiums reverberated with the sound of Kumar's bat on ball.
What he did this season
In the 1981 Ashes, Ian Botham took 34 wickets and scored 399 runs. In the 2005 edition, Andrew Flintoff took 24 wickets and made 402 runs. Outrageous as the comparison sounds, Kumar similarly made this year's Ranji Trophy his own. On a smaller stage, against more modest opposition, he toiled for 321.2 overs and took 41 wickets; he also spanked 368 runs at a strike-rate of 80.34. All this season, during periods when UP were up against it, either with the bat or the ball, Mohammad Kaif, the captain, could turn to Kumar and rest assured that things would start to move.
In his own words
Lessons learned
"Life is tough for fast bowlers in India. Most of our games took place at the KD Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow, where there is no help for fast bowlers. So, bowling according to the wickets and bowling to a plan was very important. Mohammad Kaif's field placements helped my bowling style. A majority of my wickets, you will see, were bowled and lbws."
Most memorable performance
"Against Andhra, on a fast pitch, I first scored a quick 70 [from 262 for 7 he took the score to 365, scoring a 68-ball 78 with seven fours and four sixes], then I took five wickets in each innings, and then scored another 50 in the fourth innings."
Areas that need improvement
"Now, I can't tell you that. (laughs)"
Inside view - Rajinder Singh Hans, UP coach
"Praveen Kumar is a very good bowler. He bowls to his field and makes the coach's and captain's jobs much easier. He provides you options with his batting too. He has the makings of a genuine allrounder."
Outside view - Deep Dasgupta, Bengal captain
"Kumar is a useful medium-pacer and he has been a good find for Uttar Pradesh. He's a talented cricketer and has the heart to fight it out. He's also a clean hitter of the ball and that is good for the captain when he wants someone to up the ante. From what I saw of him during the Ranji final, I found him to be a very fit and confident player."
Ramesh Powar Offspin bowler, lower-order batsman, Mumbai, West Zone, Rest of India
by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan


Ramesh Powar: 'The drifter helped me on flat tracks' © Getty Images
For six seasons Ramesh Powar the offbreak bowler lived happily alongside Ramesh Powar the lower-order biffer. This year, though, the spinner hogged all the limelight. A fine-tuned drifter, allied with canny changes of pace, turned him into a threat even on flat pitches. Sairaj Bahutule had moved to Maharashtra, which meant that Powar had more responsibility to shoulder. He delivered and how, toiling in unhelpful conditions to finish with 20 wickets more than Mumbai's second-highest wicket-taker in the season. He may not have been the fittest cricketer around - at the season-opening Challenger Trophy, his stocky frame and prominent belly led to someone mistaking him for Duleep Mendis - but he finished the season on top of the Ranji wicket-takers list, proving that cricket sometimes supports the survival of the fattest.
What he did this season
Powar started with seven wickets in the first innings of the Irani Trophy, and continued his fine form in the Duleep Trophy which followed. His 11 wickets in three games, including seven in the opener against South Zone, played a big part in West Zone's eventual triumph in the championship. An impressive 42 wickets in seven Ranji games came next - 18 of those came from the two successive wins over Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.
In his own words
Lessons learned
"I had a game plan against every batsman. Having played for seven years, one learns their weaknesses. I bowled a bit negative to the attacking Delhi batsmen, frustrating them into giving their wickets, and pitched it outside leg stump to the Tamil Nadu left-handers, spinning it across them. I tried different angles, different degrees of spin. The drifter helped me on flat tracks."
Memorable performance
"My six-wicket haul against Delhi in the opening game of the Ranji Trophy. It was one of the flattest wickets I have bowled on. We batted first and made 551 but the pitch showed no sign of wear and tear. I couldn't rely on the track and had to confuse the batsmen with flight. I bowled long spells in tough conditions and dismissed four of the top five and then came back to take another two."
Areas that need work
"My fitness. I had a bout of jaundice before the season and couldn't control my diet after recovery. I often need to bowl 70 overs in an innings and there isn't much gap between games. So I need to get back into shape. My batting was also a disappointment. It was tough batting lower down because our tail collapsed regularly. Concentrating all my energies on my bowling meant that my batting was often neglected."
Inside view - Amol Muzumdar, Mumbai batsman
"He worked really hard in the off season, trying out new things while playing in the English leagues. One particular delivery, the drifter, confused a lot of batsmen. It floated away from them in the air and nipped back in sharply. He also fine-tuned his away-going delivery. Success in the early part of the season helped; it gave him confidence which he carried right through the season."
Outside view - Niraj Patel, Gujarat batsman
"It's tough to play him because of the number of variations he has. He understands match situations well and knows when to attack, when to defend. He's very good on batting pitches also, which makes him a big threat."

This article first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Cricinfo Magazine