A hopelessly one-sided Ranji Trophy final cannot take away from the fact that this has been one of the more engaging domestic seasons in Indian cricket — not the least because it has thrown up so many aspirants for places in the national team as it goes through a period of transition.
For many young players the opportunity to make the grade couldn’t be better, though I believe the key to India’s success against Australia in a few weeks time and South Africa at the end of the year could be how some ‘ oldies’ fare. But I’ll come to that after dwelling a bit on the Ranji final mismatch.
This was Mumbai’s 40th title, in itself a superb achievement. When clubbed together with how other teams too have fared — champions in under- 25, under- 16, women’s under- 19 and runners up in the boys under- 19 — Mumbai’s cricket would seem to be on a massive upsurge to regain its pristine position in the country’s cricket sphere.
Indeed, the only thing that rankles a bit is that Saurashtra were rendered hapless in the absence of their star players Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja, who were locked up doing duty for India in the ODI series against England.
With the series against England decided before the Ranji final, a case could have been made to release both these players from national duty; or even shift the final by a couple of days. Of course playing for India supercedes all else, but some flexibility in such cases is not unwarranted.
It can’t be anybody’s case that Mumbai would not have won had Pujara and Jadeja played the final.
The margin of defeat was too huge to brook ifs and buts. But the presence of these two could possibly have made the match more competitive, given their good form.
That said, the interesting aspect of Mumbai’s win was the performance of the senior pros, a couple of whom joined the campaign only mid- way: skipper Agarkar, Tendulkar, Wasim Jaffer and Zaheer Khan who made telling contributions when most needed.
Jaffer perhaps was the most impressive. He returned home from a pilgrimage to find his father on a life support system, but did not let his focus on scoring runs waver and may have pitch- forked himself into national reckoning again considering the travails of the Indian top order.
For altogether different reasons, the other opener in focus again is Virender Sehwag. It would be presumptuous and silly to say that he is finished. Fitness has been a bigger issue with him than loss of touch, and if he has worked hard on this in the past couple of months, Sehwag could be of big value.
He still holds the biggest psychological threat for opponents and Michael Clarke would be a very relieved man if Sehwag is not in the India squad. But to get in, the explosive opener has to challenge himself to finding a second wind.
It is foolish to ask him to change his approach - that would be like Samson without his hair – but he needs a big score to impress the selectors.
There is no doubt that the future belongs to younger players.
But quite frankly, there haven’t been too many who have shown outstanding caliber even in domestic cricket to merit great optimism. The structure of the Ranji Trophy and the points system followed can also be misleading about players’s strength.
Stellar seniors barring Tendulkar — Jaffer, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Zaheer for instance— are not even 35. My assessment is that India is hugely vulnerable in both batting and bowling currently.
Barring a few, there are no certainties for the first couple of Tests against Australia.
Pujara, Kohli, Dhoni ( though he would be on a short leash as captain), Tendulkar ( who desperately needs to redeem himself) and at a stretch, Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin are the only names that come to mind for the first couple of Tests.