One of the consequences of the BCCI doing away with the Ranji Trophy’s three-group system this year and making the premier domestic tournament more egalitarian has been that it has left the teams with little room for error. Now, instead of two elite and one plate pools, the 28 teams are divided into four more-or-less equally competitive groups.
Unlike the previous season, in place of six teams from the two elite groups and a couple from the weak C group advancing to the quarters, only two from each division will make to the last eight. The restructuring has also left each team with two matches fewer than the last season. All this means each fixture carries that extra bit of significance and a good start to the season is almost imperative if a side is eyeing a knockout berth.
In Group A, Delhi have seized the early initiative with a resounding bonus-point victory over Railways in the last match, having narrowly missed out on a win against Assam in their season opener. They sit third behind Karnataka (13 from 2 games) and Railways (13 from 3), but have played one game fewer than Railways. The performance has left coach KP Bhaskar as pleased as punch.
“Some youngsters have been tried. And they have came good. Manan (Sharma) and the lower middle order have really performed,” said Bhaskar, on the eve of Delhi’s match against Uttar Pradesh at Palam in New Delhi.
Sharma has been a revelation with both bat and ball this season. In the last match, he struck a hundred and took seven wickets with his left-arm spin as Delhi won by an innings and 105 runs. Mumbai Indians’ IPL star Nitish Rana, too, has a century and a fifty to his credit in two games. But the biggest difference appear to be Ishant Sharma’s captaincy, and Bhaskar admits as much: “We have a new captain, and he has been able to inspire the team.”
Bhaskar and previous captain Gautam Gambhir’s were rarely on the same page last year and Gambhir was even suspended for four matches after an outburst against the coach. “What has changed (from the previous season) is that we are playing as a team. It’s always nice to start on a winning note. Now we’ve got to see is that we carry it forward. We need to be consistent in all our remaining games as well,” he said.
Delhi’s opening remains an area of worry, with Unmukt Chand scoring all of 42 runs in four innings. However, it will take a team better than this Uttar Pradesh side to expose and exploits Delhi’s weaknesses. UP, who had won a title and finished runners-up twice in the 2000s, have seen their graph go down alarmingly in the last few years. Curiously, though, it is not an indictment on UP’s cricket. They do have Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Kuldeep Yadav in the Indian team, and their exports have done exceedingly well for other Ranji teams — RP Singh played a pivotal role in Gujarat’s triumph last year, and Piyush Chawla has taken 17 wickets in two matches for the same team after making the switch this year.
The Ranji Trophy is another matter. For the last three season in a row, UP have failed to go past the group stage. And the fourth season is heading in the same direction. They have played three matches and have only one point to show, courtesy a washout in Hyderabad.
Their most bizarre performance came in their first match, against Railways in Lucknow, which they looked like winning comfortably till the third day. Needing 94 runs to win, UP first lost their marbles and then the match, folding for 72. The tactics that they used were strange to say the least. They upset the batting order — the most egregious move being Praveen Kumar sent to open the innings. Only two players made it to the double digits, one of them was captain Suresh Raina whose 29 runs of a season tally of 40 came in that innings.
There have been individual performances, left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar took 11 wickets in the last match while leg-spinner Zeeshan Ansari bagged six wickets in the first, but as a bunch the team have underwhelmed. With UP having played half their games already, they have only one option in the fixture beginning tomorrow: go big, or go home.
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