It will be the first time in three years that almost all top Delhi stars are available at the start of the Ranji Trophy season. The mere presence of opener Gautam Gambhir and speedster Ashish Nehra has transformed a struggling Delhi side into a confident outfit ahead of its season opener against Tamil Nadu, which gets underway at the Ferozeshah Kotla on Thursday. Virender Sehwag, the third Delhi player who is a regular in the national team, is, of course, missing yet again.
It is hard to believe that onetime national powerhouse Delhi last won the Ranji title way back in 1992-93. The only other time they featured in the final after that was in 1997. After that, it has been a downhill slide for the team — in fact, they struggled to avoid relegation in the last three seasons.
The fall was not without reasons: The non-availability of their home ground, along with wrong selection policies, dampened the spirits of even seasoned campaigners like Mithun Manhas and Aakash Chopra, who failed to car ry the team's weight in the ab sence of their India stars.
This year, though, things are looking up; Nehra has re gained complete fit ness and his availability could mean a huge dif ference to Delhi’s fortunes over the next two months. Given the fact that both Nehra and Gambhir have been targeting a place in the Indian side, it would be no surprise if they come up special performances against Tamil Nadu.
The other big news for Delhi is the return to form of their other opener, Aakash Chopra. Ever since his exclusion from the Indian side, Chopra had been struggling to find the touch that made him a fixture in the Indian line-up. His knock of 188 against Sri Lanka A in the recent Duleep Trophy final has not only given him a lifeline but has also put him back in the contention for recall to the national team.
Apart from all these factors, Delhi are strengthened by the fact that they are being led by a man who means business. The way Manhas has led North Zone in the Deodhar and Duleep Trophy, it seems that he can infuse his senior teammates as well as the youngsters with confidence. And as far as his batting ability is concerned, if he is on a song, fans would happily pay to watch him bat.
Light drizzle on Wednesday evening could well force the Delhi and Tamil Nadu captains to change their strategies. Already, the Delhi team management has opted for a different strip at the last moment because the wicket prepared for this match over the last week was found to have an uneven bounce.
Delhi are likely to field two debutants — middle-order batsman Virat Kohli and speedster Ishant Sharma — for this crucial encounter. Both have been rewarded for their good show at the junior level with a Ranji Trophy berth. Ishant, in particular, could hold the key if Delhi have to come good this season.
It would be a toss-up between two left-armers , pacer Kuunal Lall and spinner Rahul Sanghvi, for a place in the XI. Predictably, last year’s skipper Amit Bhandari is likely to sit out after he was unable to regain match fitness.
Tamil Nadu, too, are most likely to go into the match without star bowler L. Balaji, who has not recovered from his stomach injury.
Delhi (from): Mithun Manhas (captain), Aakash Chopra, Gautam Gambhir, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Rajat Bhatia, Vijay Dahiya (wk), Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, Chetanya Nanda, Kunnal Lall, Rahul Sanghvi, Mayank Tehlan, Yogesh Sachdeva and Amit Bhandari. Coach: Chetan Chauhan. Tamil Nadu (from): S. Badrinath (captain), S. Anirudha, Hemang Badani, L. Balaji, R. Jesuraj, Ashish Kapoor, V. Yo Mahesh, R. Naresh, R. Prasanna, R. Sathish, S. Sharath, S. Vidyut, M. Vijay, M. Vikram (wk), D. Tamil Kumaran and C. Suresh. Coach: WV Raman.