The 80th edition of India’s premier domestic tournament commences today with the first round being played at various venues across the country. There will be quite a few prospects for the selectors to watch out for as India are slated to play six Tests in the coming months, four of them overseas.
News and Transfers
As far as big names are concerned, India’s most famous cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar of Mumbai will play his last Ranji game in the first round, defending winning captain Ajit Agarkar has announced his retirement, former batsman Ajay Jadeja is set to make a shock comeback for Haryana aged 42 and Saurashtra veteran Sitanshu Kotak will also call it a day after playing his side’s opening game. Key transfers include Ramesh Powar (from Mumbai to Rajasthan) and Bipul Sharma (from Punjab to Himachal Pradesh).
The Groups and the Teams
Group A – Mumbai, Punjab, Gujarat, Delhi, Karnataka, Orissa, Haryana, Vidharbha, Jharkhand.
This group seems to be the toughest to qualify from this season. Besides defending champions Mumbai, who will be chasing their 41st title, Group A consists of traditionally strong outfits such as Punjab, Delhi and Karnataka. Punjab were one of the semifinalists last year, while Karnataka had reached till the quarterfinals. Delhi’s campaign will generate extra interest because of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag’s presence – the forgotten duo who were India’s first-choice openers less than a year back. Jharkhand won promotion last season, and it will be interesting to see how they hold their own in this challenging pool.
Group B – Saurashtra, Services, Uttar Pradesh, Railways, Baroda, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan.
Saurashtra and Uttar Pradesh are the teams to watch out for in Group B, the former having reached the final last year while the latter were the best team in the league stage last season before faltering in the quarterfinals. Having said that, Saurashtra’s performance will largely depend on how often Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja, their two most vital players, turn out for them. Baroda, Bengal and Tamil Nadu are the other contenders from this group, but according to me, the presence of Services will be of the greatest interest. The unheralded team not only won promotion, but also reached the semifinals last season before losing to Mumbai. Rajasthan, champions in 2010-11 and 2011-12, just missed relegation by a whisker last time, and will be aiming to set things right.
Group C – Hyderabad, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Kerala, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Tripura.
Hyderabad and Maharashtra were the two teams relegated last time, both having failed to win even a single game outright. With two quarterfinal berths up for grabs from this group, these teams have a great opportunity to attain glory, just like Rajasthan did three years back. One of Assam, Kerala or Andhra Pradesh might just achieve what Services did last season, and the selectors would do well not to ignore this low-key group, especially given the consistent performances of the likes of Parvez Rassol (Jammu and Kashmir) and Sanju Samson (Kerala).
Players To Watch Out For
1) Chidhambaram Gautam (Karnataka)
27 year-old Gautam has been a Ranji regular for almost five years now, and he has more often than not delivered the goods. Besides being the side’s wicketkeeper, Gautam mostly bats at No.4, a position at which he was outstanding last season, when he tallied 943 runs ( three centuries) at a mind-boggling 117.87 to finish as the second-highest run-getter. Though it seems unlikely that he will be considered for a national spot, he did represent India ‘A’ against New Zealand ‘A’ a couple of months back. His unbeaten 264 in a must-win clash against Maharashtra last season underlined his ability to soak in the pressure.
2) Shahbaz Nadeem (Jharkhand)
This 24 year-old slow left-armer from Bihar was only 15 when he played his first class game, and nearly a decade later, he has grown to be one of the leading domestic players from the Eastern part of India. Besides being Jharkhand’s premier spin bowler, he is also the captain of the side. Recently he also captained the East Zone in the Duleep Trophy. His 42 wickets last season helped Jharkhand win promotion, and things will only get more challenging this time around for Nadeem, whose team is pitted against many top teams in Group A. He is being keenly watched by the selectors thanks to his ever-improving performances – he recently played for India ‘A’ at home against West Indies ‘A’ and away against South Africa ‘A’,
3) Mohammed Shami (Bengal)
In the few ODI opportunities he has got, 23 year-old right-arm medium-fast bowler Shami has been quite impressive with his tendency to bowl accurate lenghts, while at the same time generating speeds in the vicinity of 140 kmph, which is very good for an Indian pace bowler. If he stays fit and continues his recent good form, there could be no reason why he will not be considered for a Test spot in the near future. India’s pace bowling stocks have been ordinary of late (with the exception of Bhvaneshwar Kumar), and giving Shami an opportunity will certainly be a good idea. In tandem with Ashok Dinda, Shami forms a potent pair for Bengal.
4) Rajat Paliwal (Services)
This might seem a surprise pick in this list, but if one looks at the last season, Services had a lot to thank 22 year-old Haryana-born Rajat Paliwal for helping them earn promotion and a dream semi-final spot. His 784 runs at 78.4 (four hundreds) last season earned him a place in the India ‘A’ side for the recent unofficial ‘Tests’ against West Indies ‘A’ and also in the North Zone team for the just-concluded Duleep Trophy, where he scored an unbeaten 106 in the semi-final. With Services among the stronger teams this time around, Paliwal will be expected to shoulder the batting responsibilities once again.
Although it is very early to say, here is my prediction for who could make the quarterfinals this season:
Group A – any three of Mumbai, Karnataka, Delhi and Punjab, Group B – any three of Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Saurashtra and Services (my personal favourites), Group C – Maharashtra, Kerala.