The chock-a-block December fixtures had the teams pacing around the country breathless. The New Year break wouldn’t have been timelier, offering them the time to rewind and reflect, recover and replenish as the Ranji Trophy enters a meaner, decisive phase, where they can’t afford to slip up. It’s almost halfway through the league stages —fourth of the nine rounds — and for several teams, it’s now or never to get their act together. A peep into some of the thrilling fixtures.
Stars gone, Delhi need points
Mohali: The expertise of Shikhar Dhawan and Ishant Sharma shone through Delhi’s first victory of the season, against Hyderabad at the Kotla. However, both stars would be absent against Punjab, who are riding a high, having beaten Hyderabad and Rajasthan besides wrestling three points (on the basis of first-innings lead) from defending champions Vidarbha.
Delhi, on the other hand, had narrowly averted a defeat against Kerala in the opening match, before Dhawan and Ishant orchestrated their maiden victory of the season. How Delhi can stand up to table-toppers Punjab in the absence of the stalwarts (also missing will be Navdeep Saini), which would be the theme of the season once the international fixtures kick in, will go a long way in defining their season. There are young sparks like medium-pacer Simarjeet Singh and Kunal Chandela, but they would hope for the more influential performances from the seasoned Dhruv Shorey and Nitish Rana.
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The cynosure, though, will be young Punjab batsman Shubman Gill, who struck a patient hundred against a quality Vidarbha attack. Promising as he has been, the selectors will keep a tab on his performances. Equally impressive has been young leg-spinner Mayank Markande, currently their highest wicket-taker (11 at 18). He has been ably supported by the experienced medium pacer Siddharth Kaul and Sandeep Sharma, making Punjab one of the deadliest bowling units in the domestic circuit.
Vijay Shankar back, TN in dire straits
Kanpur: The last time Uttar Pradesh beat Tamil Nadu was seven years ago, but there wouldn’t be a better time to pouch another victory. Tamil Nadu have imploded to their worst ever start in a Ranji Trophy, having lost two games and surrendered first-innings lead in the third. Injuries to mainstays Dinesh Karthik, Murali Vijay, Abhinav Mukund and Ravichandran Ashwin have stalled them, but their second-string of players haven’t quite latched onto their breaks. They will undoubtedly be buoyed by the return of skipper and all-rounder Vijay Shankar. Encouraging is also the form of Kaushik Gandhi, who struck 154 against Madhya Pradesh.
Hosts Uttar Pradesh, too, had a wobbly start, conceding three points to Railways and Karnataka, before reviving with a thumping victory over Saurashtra. Central to their recovery has been the spin pairing of Saurabh Kumar and Zeeshan Ansari, who between them gobbled up 16 of the 20 Saurashtra wickets. Left-arm spinner Saurabh had Cheteshwar Pujara trapped in front of the wickets twice in the match.
Hanuma Vihari in search of a century
Jaipur: A prolific scorer in the domestic circuit, Hanuma Vihari has had an indifferent start to the season. Not that he’s looked out-of-depth, he still averages in the mid-40s, but he hasn’t quite converted his starts to a hundred, which he routinely does. Subsequently, Andhra, who has shown glimpses of sparkle in the last couple of years, has stuttered at the start of the season. Flanked by the impressive nine-wicket win over Delhi have been dismal draws to Vidarbha and Bengal, underpinned by disheartening batting performances in the first innings. A jaded Rajsathan, who have lost both their previous encounters and are bottom-dwellers, presents them with an ideal opportunity to grab a few points and lift themselves from the bottom half of the table.
Can Rishi Dhawan sustain efforts?
Dharamshala: All-rounder Rishi Dhawan’s hopes of an India comeback seem all but over, but he hasn’t given up the dream. And he has gotten off to another bright start—he’s the top run-scorer (187) and second-highest wicket-taker for Himachal Pradesh (13). His performances were vital in setting up their 71-run win over Tamil Nadu while he nearly steered them to a victory over Karnataka in a rain-interrupted match with a match-haul of eight wickets and a stroke-filled 93 in the first innings. He would again be Himachal’s main man against an under-performing Madhya Pradesh.
Bengal face in-form Gujarat
Kolkata: With weather threatening to rob the opening day’s play, Bengal find themselves in a familiar tight spot against an in-form Gujarat in a home fixture. In their previous match, Bengal had taken a firm footing against Andhra but rain and bad light resulted in a truncated match and eventually the hosts had to settle for three points on basis of first innings lead. Outside top-five in the elite cross pool, Bengal will have to keep a close eye on the skies with rain forecast for Friday. But the Arun Lal-mentored side will be desperate for full points against a team, who are on a roll with successive wins over Hyderabad away and Kerala at home.
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