The caressing, wintry sunlight is back and the sound of the ball hitting the willow in empty stands returns as a pleasant departure from the din of international games. India's premier domestic cricket competition, the Ranji Trophy, enters its new season overshadowed by the flattering hype generated by the India-Pakistan showdown.
Yes, while the men in blue have been revelling in wins over Pakistan, Ranji is chugging along silently, though a bit differently from the previous editions. There have been some sterling individual performances like from Saurashtra's Cheteshwar Pujara, who with three tons in three games must have sent a plea to the selectors.
But with the Indian middle-order packed considering Yuvraj Singh is sitting out, and there being no places at least for the rest of the season, Pujara's innings might be hitting the dead end. A decade and a half ago, he might have gone the way other West Zone players did, Surender Bhave, Shantanu Sugwekar, Santosh Jedhe all raked up tons of runs but sat out. Thanks to non-stop cricket, Pujara should get his opportunity somewhere in future in some form, though the fear is if he fails once, he might just be cast aside and left for the domestic grind.
That said Saurashtra need to derive some inspiration from him. They got points against Rajasthan but their debacle against Delhi should worry them. There are too many lower rung teams floating in the super league and yet the league has looked competitive. Delhi scored over Mumbai for the first time in 15 years, Baroda who seem insurmountable were stretched by the doughty Hyderabadis, who have lost their entire team to ICL, Punjab also partly undone by the ICL staved off UP, all these point to the reserves of talent available and the enthusiasm that comes to play for state teams.
For sure, Yusuf Patahn with his terrific all round shows must be knocking at the door. But if his chance comes, it would be only in ODIs or T20, unless he repeats Vadodara riots against Bengal too often.
None can doubt, after the sorry experience Railways had two seasons ago, when they, as defending champions, slipped to plate from the super league, that this event is a great leveller. No unexpected events this time, for good teams look set to stay in the top bracket except for Bengal -- and that too for valid ICL reasons.
Orissa, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan may just soon find themselves in plate again if they don't mend their ways.
The problem with Rajasthan has been the lack of talent at this level and maybe leadership. The skipper's never really performed and had he not been captain, his place would have gone to his nearest competitor, a much younger left-arm spinner. There have been issues over selection. A player was dropped because of indiscipline recently but brought back after criticism. The state imported a player, who had run out of runs for his previous state and there doesn't seem to be an answer to the opening woes. The seam bowling has been handled well by Pankaj Singh but he needs support. Only Afroz Khan, the plucky all-rounder, has looked good often and managed to whip up pace. The batting has depended too much on the waning Gagan Khoda, Vineet Saxena and now Nikhil Doru. Things may only get worse unless the captaincy skills like those of Ajay Jadeja are brought in for a team that has serious shortage of talent.
Problems are similar for Himachal. They rely a bit too much on Sandeep Sharma, Manvinder Bisla and Vishal Bhatia while the rest of the players lack the ability.
But early days yet and Delhi's resurgence should be celebrated. After a long time Delhi have found young seamers, who seem hungry for wickets at one given time --- Ishant Sharma and Pradeep Sangwan. The batting with Gambhir, Chopra, Sehwag and Manhas looks solid and it helps when you have national-rejects in your line-up.
Delhi would perhaps be the only side where three players are fighting for one spot in the national team. Gambhir, Sehwag and Chopra would want to partner Wasim Jaffer when they go Down Under, if Karthik fails again. Rightly so, for, on a tour to Australia, you need a proper batsman at the top.