The 79th edition of the Ranji Trophy is set to commence on 2nd November with the first round of matches. Rajasthan are the holders, having won the last two titles convincingly when few expected them to. This season holds great importance for Indian cricket, as the Test team is undergoing a transition phase following the retirements of stalwarts Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman (who will be captaining Hyderabad), and another legend Sachin Tendulkar being at the fag end of his career. Furthermore, India’s abysmal Test performances in the last season have increased the clamour for new faces in the squad – and the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy might just unearth a few players who can go on to represent the country with success.
The Ranji Trophy has done away with the system of Elite and Plate divisions. Instead, the format has been considerably tweaked and three groups of nine teams each have been formed. Groups A and B consist of the stronger teams, while Group C has the weaker teams. Three teams each from Groups A and B, and two from Group C will gain entry into the quarterfinals.
Group A – Rajasthan, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Saurashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Railways, Bengal, Punjab, Gujarat
Group B – Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Vidarbha, Delhi, Baroda, Odisha
Group C – Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Services, Tripura, Goa, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam
WHY THE COMING SEASON HOLDS SIGNIFICANCE
Since the last few years, the Ranji Trophy has been continuously neglected by the powers-that-be, who instead focus on the glamour and riches of the IPL. Placid wickets, lack of incentives, empty stadiums – the Ranji Trophy has been treated shabbily in spite of being the country’s oldest and most prestigious domestic tournament. However, India’s nightmares in England and Australia last season have brought to the fore the importance of the domestic grind. With these same teams now scheduled to visit India this season for four Tests each, almost all of the international players have made themselves available at least for the first round of the season in order to fine-tune their game. Tendulkar, who is going through a bad patch, will turn out for Mumbai in the first round – after 4 years, and so will Zaheer Khan, who also has been off-colour for quite some time now.
The opening pair of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag has not clicked for a while, and the No.6 position has still not found a permanent occupant since Saurav Ganguly retired in 2008-09. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina are expected to fight it out for that spot. But the biggest concern has to be the pace attack – Zaheer has been off-colour, and except for Umesh Yadav, no one has impressed. Ishant Sharma’s overall record is nothing to write home about, Varun Aaron keeps getting injured, while erstwhile hopefuls RP Singh and S Sreesanth are nowhere in the picture. The time is ripe to blood some new quick bowlers, if India are to take 20 wickets in a Test overseas regularly.
PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR BY INDIAN SELECTORS
Chesteshwar Pujara’s rise from a domestic run-machine for Saurashtra into the first choice No.3 in the Indian Test team is the best example of a player reaping the rewards of a successful first-class record. Besides Pujara, players like Ajinkya Rahane and Varun Aaron have also been in the reckoning, athough a crowded top-order and injuries respectively have kept them out of the Indian team. Every year, quite a few players make an impact, but most of the times they have been ignored because of the selectors’ reluctance to try out new faces ahead of reputations. Here are four players to watch out for this season by India’s selectors –
1) Robin Bist (Rajasthan)
The 25 year-old right-hand batsman averages almost 52 in 42 first-class matches so far, and was a player to be looked forward to last year as well. He did not dissapoint – logging more than 1000 runs to play a crucial part in Rajasthan’s second successive triumph. Expect him to score big again, and the selectors would do well to keep a keen eye on him.
2) Unmukt Chand (Delhi)
Fresh fro leading the U-19 Indian team to World Cup victory, Chand was only 17 when he made his first-class debut, and averages a decent 41 with the bat. This will be the season where he can grow into an even better batsman as Delhi look to win the title after 5 years.
3) Ashok Dinda (Bengal)
A consistent performer for quite some time, Dinda is the front-runner to gain a place in the Test team. He further staked his claim by bagging 7/26 for East Zone in a Duleep Trophy match recently. He should make his Test debut this season if he continues to bowl in this manner.
4) Mandeep Singh (Punjab)
At just 20 years of age, Mandeep has been named Punjab’s vice-captain, deputy to Harbhajan Singh. And he can bat big – an excellent average of 61 in 16 first-class games so far. With a few batting spots in the Indian team being wobbly, a good showing by this young lad will go a long way in making him a strong contender.
My quarterfinal line-up would include defending champions Rajasthan, Mumbai and Punjab from Group A, Delhi, Baroda and Uttar Pradesh from Group B, and Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh from Group C. It would be too early to predict anything beyond that.