Another season of hope unfolds

Ranji Trophy champion Railways. The team faces a daunting task of maintaining its awesome reputation.-R.V. MOORTHY

THE big boys are busy playing big matches in front of big crowds but another level of cricket — the Ranji championship — is about to roll. As matches approach, teams are going through a final phase of preparation, making sure the nuts and bolts are there, concentrating on getting the processes (this is the latest fashionable word in contemporary cricket, like intensity was a little earlier) right.

Once again Delhi starts on the wrong foot, the pre-season developments at the Kotla no less devastating than a massive earthquake or a tsunami. Drama erupted first with controversies surrounding key cricket appointments — there was much pulling and much shoving, all of which came as no surprise considering nothing is a smooth ride in Delhi's cricket circles.

Delhi's captain Ajay Jadeja left for Rajasthan along with pacer Sanjay Gill, coach Madan Lal kept his job but the DDCA complicated his task by announcing a list of probables that contained 60 names. This, said observers who know DDCA, is not team selection, but more like forming a coalition government to keep every partner happy. The selection rows are a result of powerful clubs jostling for power, each demanding its share of representation, and every announcement of a squad was accompanied by threats and all manner of allegations, the wrongs ranging from bribery, pressure, dire threats to polite sifarish.

The resultant mess got so hot that selector Vivek Razdan, former Indian fast bowler, resigned but later retracted, in true political style "in the larger interest of the game". Ultimately, as in politics, compromise works as much as confrontation and accommodation of various warring factions led to Delhi selecting large squads, and also naming a large number of standbys!

With Sehwag and Gambhir away, Amit Bhandari landed the captaincy ahead of Akash Chopra and Mithun Minhas. Nehra is still struggling with injuries but seniors Sarandeep and Rahul Sanghvi kept their places despite indifferent performances last season. Ranji selection was done after enormous stress, however selectors found slots for talented juniors Mayank Tehlan and Chetanya Nanda but Abhishek Sharma missed the bus.

The key to success, according to Ajay Jadeja, lies in players feeling they are equal to others, having faith in their abilities and facing competition with chin up and shoulders straight.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Rajasthan, under a new management, is keen to put its best foot forward, which means Ajay Jadeja is captain-cum-coach and Bombay-based veteran Hanumant Singh is Chairman of the Selection Committee. Jadeja, a crusty veteran who has spent 15 years on the circuit, views his appointment as a huge challenge and an opportunity. He is excited at the prospect of raising the standard of Rajasthan, lifting it out of the Plate section.

"The boys are talented," he says, "but need that extra bit of motivation and push to move forward." Part of his job is to provide this momentum, create self-esteem and build confidence. The key to success, according to Jadeja, lies in players feeling they are equal to others, having faith in their abilities and facing competition with chin up and shoulders straight. To achieve this he wants better treatment for players not just in terms of improved cricket facilities, decent accommodation and allowances but a changed player-official relationship based on trust and dignity. For Rajasthan, Jadeja's active involvement will be a plus because he is cricket-smart, vastly experienced and a popular team man who will extract the best out of the players. To do that he depends substantially on Gagan Khoda, a talented player hailed as a teenage prodigy when he first arrived but someone who later lost his way. Gagan is a top quality cricketer, cultured and correct, a big-game-big-innings player who needs to re-ignite his hunger to make an impact. If Jadeja can persuade him to give his best, and Nikhil Doru and Rahul Kanwat contribute, then Rajasthan can hope to do well.

The Railways, meanwhile, are faced with the daunting task of maintaining their awesome reputation. Last five years they have had two title wins and a narrow loss in the final, which makes their record better than any other team in the competition. Once again, Bangar is captain. His calm influence and high level of professionalism is one of their great strengths. Lately, he has not been in terrific form but this minor hiccup has been more than made up by left-handed Pagnis, an audacious opener, and the more sedate Yere Gaud in the middle order.

Remarkably, Railways' success lies in its collective effort. Whenever the chips are down someone from the XI stands up and delivers. Time and again the team has shown doggedness and resilience; a stubborn lower middle-order puts up runs when the top order collapses, and seemingly weary bowlers produce magical spells. J. P. Yadav has been an inspiration with his Flintoff-like ability to change the course of a match in a session; Parida is a proven performer who takes a bagful of wickets season after season with incisive off-breaks.

UP is also on a high with their cricket currently going through a spectacular run, but their achievements are player-driven not team related. With Kaif, R. P. Singh and Raina in India's squad (and Piyush Chawla and Ravikant Shukla in the junior team) UP is riding a spectacular crest. For long champions in various age level tournaments, now it is time for them to move ahead and make a splash among seniors.

Madhya Pradesh, another Central Zone team, is also looking to turn the tide. They are in the process of rebuilding. Youngsters are being groomed but Amay Khurasia, a dashing left-hander, is still around. The team rests heavily on experienced players such as opener Naman Ojha and Devinder Bundela, but Sachin Dholpure needs to consolidate the flying start he received with India's under-19 team.

In bowling, much is expected from Golwalkar, a leggie who tasted success on the domestic circuit and with Middlesex this summer. Golwalkar is tipped to take up the mantle from Hirwani, who bemused batsmen for 20 years, and in years to come MP's spin attack could be in his hands together with young off-spinner Jalaj Saxena.

As another Ranji season unfolds, the fates of teams and the fortunes of players will be decided in the next few months.