Things have changed drastically since Uttar Pradesh winning their maiden Ranji Trophy in 2006 in Lucknow. In the following season, defending champions had to struggle hard to avoid relegation from the Elite Group.
Just after playing the first match against Maharashtra last season, former skipper Gyanendra Pandey (now team coach) called it a day, and thereafter teams' batting mainstay Rizwan Shamshad (now selector) followed the suit. That wasn't all, just before the start of the new season last month, experienced speedster Ashish Winston Zaidi too, quit the game and became team manager and bowling coach.
And above all, four young cricketers i.e. left-hand seamer Shalabh Srivastava, orthodox spinner Avinash Yadav, all-rounder Ali Murtuza and hero of the UP's maiden Ranji win Ali Hamid Zaidi joined the rebel league ICL.
So, for Team India discard Mohd Kaif will have to shoulder a big responsibility along with star duo Suresh Raina and Piyush Chawla to put Uttar Pradesh on winning ways again in the domestic circuit this season by launching the new brigade of the UP cricket under the tough humid conditions here.
And the four-day Elite Group B tie against hosts Orissa, beginning Friday, at the Barabati Stadium here, would be a testing time for Kaif and Co at the time when their pace bowling attack looks inexperienced in absence of speedster Rudra Pratap Singh and Praveen Kumar, both doing national duty.
"Certainly, we need a fine start here," said Kaif, adding, "Orissa would have the home advantage, but we are capable enough to handle the situations well."
Undoubtedly, the visitors have a strong batting line-up. Besides Kaif and Raina, three other main batsmen i.e. Ravikant Shukla, Shivakant Shukla and Tanmay Srivastava had a good showing in the Central Zone Under-22 Col CK Nayudu Trophy matches last week, hammering a century each to take UP into the knockout.
Both Kaif and Raina too, had a good run at the Challenger Trophy at Ahmedabad last week, where Raina scored two well-composed half centuries, while Kaif had almost a half century and before that he had a match-winning 92 for India 'A' against visiting South Africa 'A'.
But their concern is on the pace bowling attack with right-arm seamer Ratnesh Mishra, who had five wickets last season, being the most experienced among the bunch, including two young seamers Sudeep Tyagi and Mohd Abid Khan, who are all set to make their Ranji Trophy debut here on Friday.
As usual leggie Piyush Chawla would be the first one to bowl with the old ball, and is likely to be assisted by part-time offie Shivakant Shukla and even Suresh Raina as fielding another spinner will reduce their batting strength.
"We have many a young faces in the team, and it will take time to groom them into champions mode. But the best thing is that boys are positive and looking for the opportunities to showcase their talent," said coach Gyanendra Pandey.
Hosts Orissa too rely on their strong batting line-up with Team India discard Shiv Sundar Das at the top. And in the bowling department aged Debashis Mohanty would be spearheading the challenge on a newly laid pitch, which despite having some grass on it, doesn't look favourable for the fast bowlers.
Team coach S Das was a bit worried with the nature of wickets here and also a strong opposition. "It's the toughest match of the season for us as UP have a strong batting line-up," said Das, adding, "But we are committed to give our 100 percent here and hope for the best."
UP: Mohd Kaif (capt), Suresh Raina, Shivakant Shukla, Ravikant Shukla, Tanmay Srivastava, Piyush Chawla, Mohd Aamir Khan (w-k), Sudeep Tyagi, Rohit Prakash, Ratnesh Mishra, Mohd Abid Khan, Raj Singh, Rahat Elahi, Suraj Pratap Singh and Praveen Gupta.
Orissa: P Mullick (capt), Shiv Sundar Das, Bikash Pati, Subit Biswal, Niranjan Behera, Rashmi Ranjan Das, Rashmi Ranjan Parida, P Jayachandra, Haldhar Das (w-k), Debashis Mohanty, Sanjay Satpathy, Sukanta Khatua, Sourav Sehgal, Pritamjit Das and Deepak Behera.