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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ranji Trophy: Greeting season for Chandigarh

Chandigarh, a union territory with a rich heritage of being home to some of the country’s greatest cricketers and a hub supplying players to Haryana and Punjab, will make a giant stride when it makes its Ranji Trophy debut this season. Along with the Union Territory Cricket Association, a number of players across teams too will embrace new beginnings.

Written by Nitin Sharma , Devendra Pandey , Shamik Chakrabarty , Vishal Menon , Sandip G | Updated: December 8, 2019 9:18:57 am
Chandigarh, making its Ranji Trophy debut, will play Arunachal Pradesh at the Sector 16 Stadium in Chandigarh. (Express Photo: Kamleshwar Singh)

Kapil Dev and Yuvraj Singh. Two of India’s finest— World Cup winners, thrilling batsmen, terrific fielders, match-winners, one still the most successful Indian fast bowler in Tests, the other who has hefted one of the most formidable modern-day bowlers for six sixes in an over and a canny left-arm spinner himself. Both larger-than-life, explosive characters no less.

Both were born in Chandigarh, yet represented different states. Kapil plied for Haryana, with whom he clinched the most iconic of Ranji finals, a two-run heist over Mumbai. Yuvraj represented Punjab, playing an influential role in their journey to the 2005 final, which though he missed.

Generations apart they might be, but if they were to return to cricket this year, both could have ended up playing for the same state—Chandigarh, braced for their Ranji debut after a 37-year wait. They’ve already plunged into domestic cricket, having played in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

As with all new teams, it has been a fitful (at times fretful) start, but unlike the other freshers last year, they needn’t look around for cricketing legacies. They needn’t worry about standard infrastructure or functional facilities, or captains or coaches, they needn’t trot the country to assemble a rag-tag team of over-the-hill or discarded veterans. And needn’t split their hair over where they would fish out homegrown talent.

Secretary last season, coach this term

In isolation, few geographical stretches, barring Mumbai and Delhi, have produced so many towering figures. In a sense, Chandigarh cricket—or as the skipper Manan Vohra puts it Chandigarh-ness —has been ubiquitous in Indian cricket, in the brazenness of Yuvraj, in the joie de vivre of Kapil, in the street smartness of Chetan Sharma. Such a nursey would keep churning out cricketers.

Like for instance Vohra. Once a prodigy, in fact the only player Kings XI Punjab once retained during a clearout, he has fallen down the pecking order even for Punjab, who he had represented since his junior days. He was practising at the Sector 16 Stadium, which would host Chandigarh’s first Ranji fixture, against Arunachal Pradesh, when he came to know about Chandigarh’s affiliation.

With his domestic career at crossroads, he was understandably ecstatic. “Four months earlier, I was not sure about my chances with the Punjab team. I had not played a first-class game for almost a year and was getting chances only in one-day or T20s. I was a bit scared about what will happen this year. It remains a special day for us. We will always be remembered for this,” he says.

It’s fitting that their first game would be played at the Sector 16 stadium, where the legendary Kapil learnt the game under Dronacharya awardee coach DP Azad. So did Chetan Sharma, the first Indian to snaffle a hat-trick, Yograj Singh, Yuvraj’s father and himself a reputed coach, VRV Singh, the Chandigarh coach, and Vohra.

Like the city that’s heterogeneous—home for migrants from the neighbouring states — the team is a blend of players from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and even Sikkim. Among them are Uday Kaul, elder brother of Siddharth, Gurinder Singh, who had previously played for Punjab, Meghalaya and Tripura, India outcast Barinder Sran and Jaskaran Singh, who has experienced IPL with the now-defunct Deccan Chargers and Rising Pune Supergiants.

Vohra, can, thus relate to this diversity. “Chandigarh happens to be a city of settlers from neighboring states and all can be termed as Chandigarhians. Same goes with our team. Many of them like Bipul (Sharma) and Uday bhai have roots in other states, though they were raised here. Dil se hamesha Chandigarh cricketer hi hain, chahe cricket Punjab or Haryana ya Himachal Pradesh se khela ho. At any point of time, at least two players from Chandigarh were playing in Punjab or Haryana or Chhattisgarh,” says Vohra.

Their initiation to the domestic fold was relatively smooth—they were in fray for the Hazare knockouts before Puducherry knocked them out. In the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy that followed, they beat the more established Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh. Hence, there’s a wind of optimism, amplified by the fact that Chandigarh has a bigger pool of U-19 and U-23 players as compared to many other states. “As a captain, I always want 3-4 youngsters in my team and the fact that our U-19 and U-23 boys are doing well at the national circuit has made my task easier,” says Vohra.

Ahead of an emotional season-opener, Vohra gets nostalgic: “When I first came to the Sector 16 Stadium, I was just nine years old and I still remember Yograj sir making me face fast bowlers with a plastic ball on the cement wicket. He took me under his wings and as a young cricketer, we would always think about playing and wearing the Chandigarh jersey in Ranji trophy. Now the dream will be realised, and it will be like a rebirth for all of us.” And a legacy awaits them, of two hardcore Chandigarhians who have never played for Chandigarh. A fresh beginning, but an old legacy.

New captain, fractured dressing-room

Bengal have a new captain, and Abhimanyu Easwaran has taken charge of a fractured dressing-room. The problem started after veteran pacer Ashok Dinda was dropped for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Dinda, subsequently, refused to play for Bengal and didn’t turn up for the pre-Ranji training sessions.

With 417 first-class wickets he is a Bengal legend alright, but at 35 Dinda is in the twilight of his career. It is learnt that Bengal were ready to go ahead without Dinda in the Ranji Trophy as well. Especially, as they now have a tearaway quick in Akash Deep. Better sense, however, prevailed for Dinda and he has joined practice. Bengal didn’t have good outings in the Vijay Hazare Trophy followed by the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. It’s a baptism by fire for Easwaran as far as captaincy is concerned. But the 24-year-old is showing maturity.

“It’s probably part and parcel of the job that I have right now. But I would say our dressing-room is happy and we are in good spirits. I don’t think such issues will affect our preparation. Nobody is undermining my authority. In fact, the two senior-most guys, Manoj Tiwary and Ashok Dinda, are very helpful,” Easwaran told The Sunday Express. As the new captain put it, for Bengal cricket it’s a period of “transition”, with young players forming the core. “With experience, we will have better chances of winning trophies,” Easwaran said.

Tamil Nadu reins handed over to vijay shankar

For the last few seasons Tamil Nadu, a powerhouse in Indian cricket, have underachieved. They addressed the issue this term by adopting split captaincy and appointing Diwakar Vasu, former Tamil Nadu allrounder, as their new head coach in place of Hrishikesh Kanitkar.

Dinesh Karthik led the team in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. They reached the finals in both tournaments, losing to Karnataka on both occasions. Changes are working for Tamil Nadu. The onus is now on Vijay Shankar, the new Ranji team captain.

An injury-stalked World Cup, a heartbreaking run out (backing up too far versus Australia) — it has been an agonising year for Vijay Shankar. It will get more challenging as he would not only bid to reclaim the lost spot in the national side but also lead his domestic side for the first time as a full-time skipper.

The last of Tamil Nadu’s two title triumphs came as far back as 1988, though they have lost four finals in the last 18 years. Shankar, previously Tamil Nadu’s limited-overs skipper with limited success, was a popular but surprising choice as there was no shortage of choices. There were national discards Murali Vijay and Dinesh Karthik, and they could avail Ravi Ashwin’s expertise till the Test series against New Zealand in February.

But the management, perceptibly, wanted a younger alternative, and there was no better choice than Shankar, who felt that the extra responsibility was just the spur-on he required before the season. “I don’t see this as a burden, but a challenge, an opportunity to stamp my quality” he said in his first press conference as Tamil Nadu skipper.

New team for Vinay, new hope for Pondicherry

After 14 seasons for Karnataka, R Vinay Kumar has a new team this term. The former Karnataka captain has joined Pondicherry as an outstation professional. The 35-year-old medium pacer’s brief is basically to mother-hen the young pacers.

“He is already doing a lot of work, grooming the youngsters, especially the fast bowlers,” P Damodaran, former Cricket Association of Pondicherry (CAP) secretary told this paper. Vinay captained Karnataka to back-to-back Ranji Trophy titles in 2013–14 and 2014–15 — domestic trebles in fact, including the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Irani Cup. J Arun Kumar, who coached that Karnataka side, has taken charge of the Pondicherry team this season.

Under Aavishkar Salvi last term, Pondicherry failed to progress beyond the group state. In Arun Kumar and Vinay, they have proven winners.

“This year we want to win the Ranji Trophy,” Damodaran asserted.

Uthappa must embrace his demotion

Soon after Robin Uthappa joined Kerala at the start of the season as the skipper of all formats no less, he was characteristically optimistic: “All Kerala needed is a bit of motivation, and I’m here to provide that.” But in less than three months, the optimism has fractionally wavered.

Not only has he been struggling for runs, but the state’s weak show in the limited-over tournaments meant that Sachin Baby was reinstated the skipper for the Ranji Trophy.

But stripping captaincy could only unburden Uthappa, whose batting stocks have dramatically plummetted in the last two seasons (35 during his two years with Saurashtra in Ranji Trophy). In the same press conference, he had made another loud statement—that he’s not surrendered his dreams for representing India. “An unbelievable season away,” he had said. While that sounds over-ambitious, he could value-add to Kerala’s dream of jumping one rung higher than where it had finished last season—the semifinal.

Chand creates his own path, destiny

Unmukt Chand did not feature in a single first-class game for Delhi last season. The opener’s poor form and the emergence of youngsters were the reasons cited by selectors as to why he didn’t make it to the playing XI. At the end of that season, Chand had two options in front of him — either sit at home and hope for another recall or take a NOC (No-Objection Certficate) from DDCA and try his luck with another state.

He chose the second option. In September, he announced on Twitter that he would be playing for Uttarakhand. After playing 60 first-class games for Delhi, the last of which came against Karnataka in the 2017-18 season, Chand had decided to move on.

“I just could not have afforded to sit on the sidelines for another season. I’m 26 now and need to play as much cricket as I can. I want to be in the playing eleven in all matches this season, be it in white-ball or red-ball cricket. So, when they (Uttarakhand) approached me with an offer, I just accepted it,” Chand told The Sunday Express.

In the new team, he finally managed to reclaim some of the much-needed form, striking three fifties in six Vijay Hazare Trophy games.

For Chand, the real test will be the Ranji Trophy — playing a full season, away from home, and helping the newbies who topped the second-tier last year, hold their own against some of the heavyweights.

Milind kumar makes little-big move

It’s amazing what a season comprising 8 first-class games does to a batsman’s confidence. For Milind Kumar, it instilled belief beyond doubt after being banished by Delhi selectors two seasons ago. Last year, he plundered 1,331 runs with six centuries for Sikkim, including a humongous 261 against Manipur. He was the highest run-getter for the season but critics continued to take swipes at him, viewing his productivity with a pinch of salt as it came against lower-ranked teams in the Plate Division. Milind didn’t pay attention to such talk. He was finally awarded with a Rs 20-lakh IPL contract with the Mumbai Indians earlier this year.

In the upcoming season, when most expected him to stick around with Sikkim and bolster their batting, Milind decided to shift to Tripura. “The move helps me move to a higher group (Tripura, unlike Sikkim are not in the Plate Division) and they are also giving me the chance to lead the squad. These are the two challenges that pushed me towards accepting this offer. It’s not that I was not happy in Sikkim. I will always be indebted to them for giving me the chance when I had the lowest point on the professional front. Right now, I have to seek new challenges and move on.”

Mumbai-up-Mumbai: Sarfaraz’s journey

After serving a cooling-off period for nearly two years, Sarfaraz Khan has been picked for the Mumbai Ranji team, which plays Baroda. Three seasons ago he had moved to Uttar Pradesh but later returned to Mumbai to resume his cricketing career.

The decision to move to UP was taken by his father cum coach Naushad Khan but somewhere down the line, Sarfaraz says he missed Mumbai badly. “I still remember the day when I was packing my bags and removing my Mumbai jersey from my suitcase. It was a very emotional moment for me, Mumbai gave me everything. I am thankful to Mumbai Cricket Association for taking me back and giving me a chance to play again,” Khan said.

The last two years haven’t been great. When he decided to move back home from UP, he underwent a knee surgery. “I want to start fresh. I’m hopeful things will go smoothly,” Sarfaraz said.

Destination Uttarakhand for Srivastava

TANMAY Srivastava’s claim to fame is that he has captained Virat Kohli during their India under 19 days. The Uttar Pradesh opener didn’t scale the same heights as his fellow teammate. By 2016, his state Uttar Pradesh decided to move on and instead give others a chance.

Frustrated Srivastava one day met veteran administrator Rajeev Shukla, who put a word in with another team. “I was frustrated and requested Shukla sir if he can put in a word. One day I got a call from Uttarakhand and I straight away said ‘yes’. Nothing like playing competitive cricket, it was good to be on the ground,” Srivastava said.

Dehradun in the past has held camps of Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association. Srivastava said, the team is different but the venue is not new to him. He has played cricket in Dehradun before. “When I used to play for UPCA, we played many cricket matches here. So we know the place. Being a professional player is different but I was mentally ready for it. I’m happy with the way things have gone so far and I’m just hoping to continue the same form in longer format too.”


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