India’s oldest cricket competition — and one of the oldest to still exist in world cricket — is back. The 86th edition of the Ranji Trophy gets underway when 10 matches across four groups begin on Monday, 9 December.
A landmark 2018/19 season was replete with records and distinctions, dubious and otherwise — it wasn’t a campaign to remember for the traditional heavyweights of Indian cricket, with all four of Mumbai, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Bengal failing to reach the knockouts for the first time in 68 years; the all-time mark for most wickets in a single season was rewritten by Bihar’s Ashutosh Aman, who claimed 68 wickets in eight matches at a jaw-dropping average of 6.48 to surpass Bishen Singh Bedi’s 44-year-old mark of 64; the all-time mark for most runs in a single season was very nearly breached by Sikkim’s Milind Kumar, whose 1331 runs came within 84 of VVS Laxman’s 1415 in 1999/00; the group stages alone produced four team totals below 50, the most in any campaign since 1974/75; it all culminated with Vidarbha pipping Saurashtra in a low-scoring final to become only the sixth team to retain the Ranji Trophy title.
The 2019/20 domestic season in India is already in full swing, with the white-ball competitions — the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy and the 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy — both having produced riveting renditions.
In that backdrop begins the premier event, the red-ball competition, and the lack of Test matches on India’s international calendar over the coming months provides the most important fillip to the season — the presence of international stars to guide and inspire the local talent around their respective teams.
A Vijay Shankar and a Baba Aparajith, both knocking on the Team India doors, will have the sounding boards of Ravichandran Ashwin and Dinesh Karthik around them; Karnataka’s continuing line of exciting prospects will have in their midst a Mayank Agarwal, who until the start of the previous season was a fellow India international aspirant himself; Saurasthra, Mumbai and Delhi’s up-and-comers will have the experience of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Ishant Sharma, respectively, at their disposal.
Here’s a look at how things shape up, what to expect and who to keep your eyes out for this Ranji Trophy season.
The 2019/20 edition carries on the same format that was introduced for the first time last season. The top-18 sides in India are split into Groups A and B, with the second rung of teams slotting into Group C, and the newest entrants on the domestic block (including first-timers Chandigarh) placed in the Plate Group. The eight qualifiers into the quarter-finals will be as follows: five teams with the highest point tallies from across Group A and B, plus the top-two from Group C and the winners of the Plate Group.
Robin Uthappa, two years after moving away from Karnataka to join Saurashtra, is on the move again — Kerala will be the latest team to have on-board the services of the 2007 World T20 winner. Uthappa’s former teammate Stuart Binny too has now left Karnataka to join Nagaland. Last season’s top run-scorer Milind Kumar has made the trip further east from Sikkim to Tripura. 2012 Under-19 World Cup-winning captain Unmukt Chand will lead Uttarakhand after deciding to leave home state Delhi.
CM Gautam: Karnataka to Goa (contract stripped over KPL spot-fixing arrest)
Smit Patel: Tripura to Goa
Arun Karthik: Kerala to Puducherry
Abrar Kazi: Nagaland to Mizoram
Vinay Kumar: Karnataka to Puducherry
Shrikant Mundhe: Maharashtra to Nagaland
KB Pawan: Nagaland to Mizoram
Maloland Rangarajan: Uttarakhand to Tamil Nadu
Rahil Shah: Tamil Nadu to Uttarakhand
Yashpal Singh: Manipur to Sikkim
Dwaraka Ravi Teja: Andhra Pradesh to Meghalaya
Robin Uthappa: Saurashtra to Kerala
Group A & B: The cream of the crop
The fixture list has thrown an absolute firecracker to kick-start the campaign — Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, after having contested the finals of both the limited overs competitions in the last couple of months, will trade guns again to launch their red-ball season. With Karnataka having won both those title clashes — including a thrilling one-run win to capture the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in late November — expect revenge to be firmly on Tamil Nadu’s mind in this Group B tie at Dindigul.
The second of the two ‘elite’ groups definitely wears a more group-of-death look, with the two Southern Indian mainstays joined by last season’s runners-up Saurashtra and 41-time champions Mumbai. Mumbai have appointed the in-form Suryakumar Yadav as captain as they attempt to bounce back from their poor outing last time around, where they failed to reach the knockouts of a Ranji season for the first time since 2007/08.
Baroda, Railways, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh complete the Group B roster.
Holders Vidarbha will start their title defense at Mulapadu in their Group A tie with Andhra Pradesh, while seven-time winners Delhi also go southwards to Trivandrum to take on Kerala — who reached their first-ever Ranji semi-final in 2018/19.
Gujarat would appear to be the biggest challengers to Vidarbha in this group, which is completed by Bengal, Hyderabad, Punjab and Rajasthan.
With two back-to-back titles, Vidarbha have the opportunity to win three titles on the trot and to become the first side to do so after the legendary Bombay team of 60s. But red-hot Karnataka could spoil the party for them.
Group C: Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand favourites for Q/F
As recently as 2013/14, Maharashtra were Ranji Trophy runners-up. Five years on, they suffered the ignominy of relegation, as an abysmal campaign — eight points, and zero wins, from eight games — meant they, along with Chhattisgarh, dropped down to Group C.
Still, with the likes of Ruturaj Gaikwad, Ankit Bawne and Rahul Tripathi within their ranks, Maharashtra do look among the stronger units in the second rung of teams. Haryana and Jharkhand are the two teams likeliest to be hot on their heels.
Haryana’s spin arsenal is among the most stocked in the competition, with Amit Mishra, Jayant Yadav and Rahul Tewatia to call upon at most times, and Yuzvendra Chahal available when not on India duty. Their first-class captain, Harshal Patel, is entering the Ranji Trophy on the back of a gun Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, where he was the fourth highest run-scorer (374 runs in 12 innings, strike rate 165.48) and the third-highest wicket-taker (19 wickets at 15.94, economy 7.04).
Jharkhand came closest to making the leap into the higher groups, finishing one point away from the top-two positions in Group C in 2018/19. Led by Saurabh Tiwary, they have at their disposal two of the more excitable young talents in the group in Virat Singh and Anukul Roy.
Plate Group: Can seasoned pros aid emerging teams?
Plate: Arunachal, Bihar, Chandigarh, Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Puducherry, Sikkim
Goa, on account of their bottom-placed finish in Group C last season, find themselves in the bottom rung of this edition, trading places with Uttarakhand — Plate Group winners the last time around.
The Plate Group, only incorporated into the Ranji Trophy ‘proper’ for the first time with the new format introduced last season, was a field of extraordinary crests and troughs owing to the lack of experienced domestic personnel and proper pitches for most of the new entrants into the domestic grind. As a result, 36 games in the division witnessed 14 scores under 100 and eight above 500. Of the 30 matches to end with a result, nine were innings wins, eight were victories by eight or more wickets and another eight by 100 or more runs.
Unsurprisingly, the individual leaders of both the batting and bowling charts belonged to this group — taking nothing away from Milind Kumar (1331 runs) and Ashutosh Aman (68 wickets) for their stellar consistency, those tallies did have a little to do with the quality of opposition in front of them.
The pleasing thing, from an overall growth of Indian cricket perspective, is that several experienced hands now find themselves in and around the teams in the Plate Group — Stuart Binny (Nagaland), Vinay Kumar and Arun Karthik (both Puducherry), all decorated domestic performers, are now plying their trades in this division.
Knocking on the doors: Names you ought to know
Every season of the Ranji Trophy delivers with it the freshest batch of cricketers ready to make the grade up to the national team. The likes of Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Vijay Shankar, Deepak Chahar and Navdeep Saini have been beneficiaries from recent campaigns — here are some names who could be at the cusp of a Team India call-up with good performances this 2019/20 edition.
Devdutt Padikkal (Karnataka): Top-scorer, Vijay Hazare Trophy. Top-scorer, Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Contender to open the batting alongside Virat Kohli at RCB next IPL. Only 19 years of age. Get used to the name.
Priyank Panchal (Gujarat): 1310 runs in 2016/17. 542 runs in 2017/18. 898 runs in 2018/19. 2750 runs in the last three seasons of the Ranji Trophy, at 62.5 runs per inning. He just doesn’t stop scoring.
Ruturaj Gaikwad (Maharashtra): Another top-order bat in top recent form. While he averages under 40 from 15 first-class games, an impressive List-A track record (51 games, average 48.85) has made him a regular in the India A ranks. He’s yet to turn 23, but Gaikwad has been praised by no less than MS Dhoni for his ‘sharp cricket mind’. That’s steep praise.
Baba Aparajith (Tamil Nadu): When Aparajith was first touted as a future India cap, after being instrumental in an Under-19 World Cup-winning campaign, the year was 2012. Nearly eight years later, he’s just come off a Vijay Hazare Trophy campaign where he scored 598 runs and took 11 wickets. He’s still only 25.
Suryakumar Yadav (Mumbai): Elevated to the Mumbai Ranji captaincy after a stellar limited overs performance — Yadav slammed 226 runs at a strike rate of 154.79 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, before belting 392 runs at a strike rate of 168.96 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. He’s only really posturing for a white-ball call-up, but runs in the longer form won’t do his cause any harm.
KS Bharat (Andhra Pradesh): Long reckoned as the second-best glovesman in the country behind Wriddhiman Saha for red-ball cricket, Bharat is literally at the cusp — he was summoned as a reserve when Rishabh Pant was released from the Test squad to play the domestic T20s. Now the Andhra vice-captain, too.
Jalaj Saxena (Kerala): A true journeyman, Saxena is having the year of his life — and he turns 33 next week. An economy of 6.16 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy last month. 7/41 in a Deodhar Trophy game before that. Vital contributions in India A’s unofficial Test win over South Africa A before that. The spin-bowling all-rounder is producing the goods in all formats.
K Gowtham (Karnataka): Another off-spinning all-rounder, Gowtham spent most of his early years as a T20 specialist before bursting through the prestigious Karnataka Ranji ranks. Like Saxena, he’s done well enough and consistently enough to become a regular in and around India A.
Shreyas Gopal (Karnataka): That Shreyas Gopal is yet to have got an India T20I call-up, and Mayank Markande has, has to be looked at as an injustice. The wily leggie has a career T20 average of 16.78 and economy of 7.15, while picking up a wicket every 14 balls. This Syed Mushtaq Ali campaign, he returned 19 wickets from 12 games. With a T20I call-up not looking imminent, maybe Gopal could try pushing his cause in the longer formats?
Dharmendrasinh Jadeja (Saurashtra): Left-arm spinner. Capable of a few runs from the lower order. Plays for Saurashtra. Surname Jadeja. He may be the ‘other’ Jadeja for now, but if Dharmendrasinh can continue his form from last year — 59 wickets from 10 games, the fifth-most by any bowler in any Ranji season — he’ll be inching closer to challenging the senior Jadeja.
Roosh Kalaria (Gujarat): Amid the sea of spin-bowling talent, a fast bowler for the future. Kalaria, a left-arm seamer, was the fourth-highest wicket-taker in the Vijay Hazare Trophy this year, with 21 scalps from 11 games at an average of 16.52 and an economy of 3.95.
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