The sound of willow smacking leather has reverberated around the practice nets all over the country for a few weeks. It's time for real action now and the wannabe Indian Idols will cross swords against each other in 11 venues across the country come Saturday, when the 74th edition of Ranji Trophy gets underway.
The most important competition in the Indian domestic calendar has always been significant and it's no different this time with the national team having a packed schedule. Although most berths are booked, the aspiring ones have something to look forward to nonetheless, with the selectors showing a willingness to experiment of late. So those in the fringes will have a point to prove, while those to have lost their place in the national team will be as keen. The nation's eyes will be glued to the India-Pakistan series all right, but the battle featuring 15 teams in the Elite group and 12 in the Plate will be no less meaningful.
Ever since the powers that be decided to divide the teams into two halves based on strength instead of the zonal nature of the competition, the meet named after the pioneer of leg-glance has assumed greater significance. They play against the stronger sides these days, in a departure from the past, where there used to be a few 'soft' teams because of the regional texture of the whole thing.
More competitive these days
Ever since the Elite-Plate division came to existence, Ranji Trophy has become a different ball game. Strengths of teams do vary, but the difference between them has become narrower. Bengal reaching the final for successive years (2005-06 and 06-07) after having saved relegation (in 2004-05), UP winning the title for the first time (2005-06) or a complete outsider like Saurashtra making its maiden entry among the Elites memorable (2006-07) are just a few examples.
"It (the Elite-Plate distinction) has made the competition more intense," reckons Bengal coach Bharathi Arun, who was in charge of Tamil Nadu earlier.
Doesn't matter that most of these games are not shown on TV or not even a handful of them attract spectators. The contest between bat and ball, aggression and patience or the test of temperament and technique matter a lot still. It would be better if the national selectors are present at the venues more often, but performance in these games ultimately carry a lot of weight, as those to have come close to India selection would testify.
"Players like Ranadeb Bose, Manoj Tiwary, Rohit Sharma and S. Badrinath are under observation because of the way they fared last season. They are all pushing hard because they know that doing well in Ranji Trophy matters a lot, since the India team is in a state of evolution," says Arun.
Fresh chance for many
Highest wicket-taker last season, Bengal's Bose, agrees. "Yes, most slots in the national team have been secured by those who deserve them, but there are still a few openings. With the Test series against Pakistan coming up followed by the tour to Australia, there is a lot to play for.
We all will get two or three Ranji matches before the Tests against Pakistan, so we will all look forward to these games," says the player to have toured England earlier this year.
Back in the frame with a double century against South Africa A recently, opener Aakash Chopra feels the same. "Every season is more important for a few than the rest. There seems to be no opening in the national team, but with the amount of cricket we play, you never know when the opportunity comes."
No favourites, absolutely
With the Indian Cricket League (ICL) luring away quite a few players and Punjab, Hyderabad and Bengal being the most affected in terms of numbers, the competition this year has become important for many players who are either getting a new chance or coming into the frame for the first time.
Trying to predict a winner is futile still, because the competition has seen many upsets in recent years.
There are many contenders — as the cross-country look of the national team suggests — and the competition is open. Some are good, some better, and nobody knows who’s the best.