The evenings are beginning to carry just a hint of chill. The morning walk starts with the sun yet to peep out of the crimson horizon. The holiday season has started. Surely, the Ranji season is around the corner.
I have a romantic relationship with this tournament. I have followed it year after year, with unfailing zeal, ever since the times Sunil Gavaskar and Ramnath Parkar were shoring up Bombay’s challenge against the resurgent Karnataka and a newly vibrant Delhi. Even the Hindu College and St. Stephens clashes were followed, as they then became the setting for the best talent of North India against the might of the well-nigh invincible Bombay.
The format has undergone several changes since then. The balance of power has shifted from Bombay/Mumbai. Since the 70s, Karnataka, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Railways, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan got their names written on the Trophy. Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Hyderabad and Baroda also got their names etched on the Trophy again. This has been a period of spread of the game. Essential problems remain, however, in spite of another change of rules.
The Elite and Plate format has been rejigged again. It is now A, B and C groups, with the Group C rather unjustifiably getting two slots in the knock-outs. Earlier, two out of 12 Plate teams would quality for the quarter-finals. Now, the bottom nine are placed in group C and they are still getting two slots. Gujarat and Orissa, who had been relegated to Plate, find themselves in the tougher A and B groups again. I’m sure they would have welcomed the idea of remaining in group C instead. Now Assam, Himachal, Jharkhand, Kerala and Andhra have to fight amongst themselves to get these two slots from group C as everyone in Indian cricket knows that the other four teams in this group — Tripura, J&K, Goa and Services — only make up the numbers. Is it a fair grouping?
Earlier, there was some prestige attached to being called an Elite team. Even that is not there now. What a fatuous arrangement! In my opinion, with the C group being so much less competitive, there should have been a play-off between the top two teams from this group and the fourth-placed team from the other two groups. Now, there is every incentive for teams to play in group C as even the ignominy of being termed a Plate team is no longer attached.
There are other improvements, though. An outright win gets six points as against three for first-innings lead, while retaining the bonus point for an innings and a 10-wicket win. This will incentivise teams to go for results. The zero pointer game has been removed. In case of first innings of both sides not getting completed, one point each will be awarded. I think teams will think in terms of going with five bowlers instead of stacking up the league games with batters in order to play safe. All knock-out games being made five-day affairs is also a good move, as also the elimination of that silly run-rate rule in case of the first-innings not getting completed. A sixth day in such an eventuality will definitely eliminate the recurrence of the Haryana-Tamil Nadu game in 2011 and the Maharashtra-Vidarbha tie in 2012, which gave unfair advantage to the team batting second.
With VVS Laxman leading Hyderabad, and even Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan playing at least the Ranji opener for Mumbai, Group A is going to be very competitive. Rahul Dravid may turn up for Karnataka. This will bring a lot of lustre back to Ranji Trophy, as indeed it must. Once the England series starts, some leading lights of the domestic space like Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, and even Ashok Dinda may be called up for national duty.
Group A consists of Rajasthan, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bengal, Punjab, Saurashtra, Railways, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Group B has Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Karnataka, Delhi, Baroda, Maharashtra, Vidarbha, UP, and Orissa. Group C consists of minnows entirely: Assam, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and the perpetual non-performers J&K, Tripura, Goa and Services.
This Ranji season should give an opportunity to some consistent performers to lay claim to at least one Test opening spot if Gautam Gambhir continues with his indifferent performances. At least two middle-order spots would be in focus: No. 6 and another position whenever Tendulkar decides to hang his boot. The No. 5 spot should be available too as Virat would doubtlessly graduate to four.
The number three position is already cemented by Pujara. The reserve wicketkeeper’s spot is now virtually owned by Wriddhiman Saha, who continues to impress with his neat glovework and sterling batting performances.
All the three pacers’ position and one reserve spinner’s place is up for grabs. It doesn’t appear that Zaheer would last long. There would be one reserve batting spot too. An all-rounder may also be in the reckoning. But other than Stuart Binny, I do not find a genuine all-rounder of any great class staking his claim. I am, therefore, looking forward to the performances of Ajinkya Rahane in the opener’s position this year.
So who are the players one ought to be looking forward to this season? On the parameters discussed above, Rahane as an opener is something one would be keenly watching. Rahane the middle-order bat is well established and there is no novelty attached to him there. I am also particularly looking forward to Binny continuing his impressive all-round show.
Robin Bisht has already shown in the Irani Cup that his 1000 plus runs were not a flash in the pan. I hope he is in contention for a middle-order spot, but his Duleep Trophy failures are missed opportunities. Ambati Rayudu, Ashok Menaria and Mandeep Singh have all done well on ‘A’ tours and will have the spotlight on them. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has shown his all-round ability in the Duleep Trophy but he will have to seriously prove himself as a quality medium pacer. Rituraj Singh had a marvellous run last year in the four Ranji matches he played in but has struggled to maintain a decent economy rate on the ‘A’ tour of New Zealand and Duleep Trophy matches. Varun Aaron is struggling with fitness, and so is Shami Ahmed. Pankaj Singh has been a consistent wicket taker but has somehow not convinced the selectors of his attitude for the top grade. However, these are players about whom a lot has been written. Much has been said about Unmukt Chand and Harmeet Singh as well. But my shortlisted players to watch out for is concentrated on those who have not been under the arc lights, but have done well in Ranji and junior cricket. They are: Ishank Jaggi, Manprit Juneja, KL Rahul, Vijay Zol and Harshal Patel.
Ishank Jaggi was the star in the 2011 Vijay Hazare title win and has been a rock in a rather frail Jharkhand Ranji batting line-up. His stroke-making against the short ball and sure foot movement — either full forward or fully back — makes him a treat to watch in the longer version. His undefeated hundred in this year’s Duleep final for East Zone in a total for 232 was outstanding. With eight guaranteed matches this year, he will surely be my dark horse for the no. 6 spot in the Indian team.
Manprit Juneja became only the fourth player in Ranji history to make a double ton on debut last season (Gundappa Viswanath was the first one). Armed as he is with a good defensive technique, it would be very interesting to watch his progress for the Gujarat team which is otherwise rather sparse in batting resources.
KL Rahul is a young opener and wicketkeeper for the Karnataka A team, with a very Rahul Dravid-like passion for correctness. Having begun this year’s CK Nayudu campaign with a 213, I hope he manages to break into the Karnataka Ranji squad. It would be extremely difficult considering their batting depth, but one hopes he is given a chance for the sake of Indian cricket.
Vijay Zol probably holds the Indian record for the highest score in any form of inter-state cricket. He hit an unbeaten 451 in an U-19 Cooch Behar Trophy game last year. BB Nimbalkar’s undefeated 443 was the highest recorded score in India. He did not exactly put the turf on fire in the U-19 World Cup. Patience being his forte, I’m expecting Maharashtra to throw him into the big league of Ranji Trophy this year and make him earn his spurs among the big boys.
Harshal Patel did everything right last year. He took two successive eight-wicket hauls in the Ranji quarter-finals and semi-finals, yet the Haryana batsmen squandered the opportunity. He is bowling at a decent pace, with good control over swing and movement. Considering he is just 21, it would be interesting to watch his progress along with his rival, Rituraj. If he can maintain his quality, while adding an extra yard of pace, he would be a claimant of top honours.
—The writer is a principal secretary in the Rajasthan Government and a former president of Rajasthan Cricket Association. Follow him on Twitter:
@Sanjay_Dixit. The views expressed are personal