This is perhaps the most high profile start of a Ranji Trophy season in a long time, and one match is at the centre of it all – Mumbai vs Haryana.
There’s been some frenetic activity in Indian domestic cricket over the past few months. This Ranji season will see some discarded seniors trying to make a comeback, some injury ridden stars trying to push their names back into the headlines and some veterans bidding the game goodbye.
Here are the 5 players who will be in focus on the opening day of India’s domestic first-class championship:
5. Shitanshu Kotak (Saurashtra vs Rajasthan at Rajkot)
In this retirement season of veterans, 41-year-old Shitanshu Kotak of Saurashtra, a veteran no less in domestic cricket, will be playing his last first-class game against Rajasthan at his home ground in Rajkot.
Kotak has played for Saurashtra for 20 years since making his debut in December 1992 and is 4 runs short of 8000 first-class runs, a tally he has amassed at an average of 41.64 with the help of 15 centuries.
He has seen the side make the transition from Plate to the Elite League, win the Vijay Hazare trophy in 2007-08, reach the final last year, and after two decades of service, will leave the team a much strong side in Ranji Trophy than before.
While Ravindra Jadeja, Cheteshwar Pujara and Jaydev Unadkat are the more known faces of the side, Kotak was never dropped from the squad in the past two decades and that itself is an indicator of his importance for the team.
The holder of an unfortunate record – Kotak has most runs in Ranji Trophy’s history without winning a title – he’ll be determined to go on a high.
4. Varun Aaron (Jharkhand vs Delhi at Jamshedpur)
Varun Aaron last played a cricket match in IPL 2012. A back injury, which needed surgery and further rehabilitation, has taken away from him 16 crucial months of cricket since then.
Having a fast bowler who’s fast in the global sense of the term is a rarity for India. The excitement then, when Aaron and Umesh Yadav bowled in tandem for India in late 2011, can be understood.
But then he suffered a stress reaction in his back which ruled him out of the Australian tour in 2011/12, followed by the recurrence of the back injury in mid-2012 which led to his lengthy break from the game.
The 23-year-old Jharkhand bowler is back now, and promises to maintain the same pace which he had in 2011 on his return, something which the selectors and fans would surely be hoping for. Playing his first match against Delhi, he’d be up against some big names in Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Unmukt Chand.
3. Zaheer Khan (Haryana vs Mumbai at Rohtak)
India needs Zaheer Khan back in top form and fitness, and selectors would be gauging the former more in Haryana
If Zaheer Khan is able to break into the Indian side again, something which doesn’t seem as unlikely as it did earlier this year, it would be the second inspiring comeback story in his career.
Last time around, it was England, where at Worcestershire he perfected his skills and came back a different bowler, one who became an exceptional leader of a mediocre Indian bowling attack and led them to No. 1 ranking in Tests and a World Cup title.
This time around, it’s not his skills, but fitness which has been questioned. And this time it was France where he went to reignite his career, and has returned looking much fitter.
He slowly got better in the 2 matches he played against West Indies A, and if he’s prepared to fight it out some more in domestic cricket, he’ll be the first name on selectors’ list. After Ajit Agarkar’s retirement, he’ll be leading the defending champions Mumbai in Ranji Trophy, and will be closely monitored by the selectors.
2. Ajay Jadeja (Haryana vs Mumbai at Rohtak)
Jadeja was a popular name even before ‘Sir’ came around, and after a 6-year hiatus following his 5-year-ban in 2000 for involvement in match-fixing, the hero-turned-villain Ajay Jadeja will be playing a first-class match for the first time since 2007.
He has been appointed the coach and captain of the Haryana side this season and the 42-year-old will be expected to help the youngsters in the side.
He played in the Buchi Babu tournament last year and with 8046 first-class runs under his belt, would be playing against his former team-mate Sachin Tendulkar on the opening day of Ranji Trophy.
Jadeja’s skills may not be the same level as before, but it’ll be interesting to see how he steers Haryana in the Ranji Trophy.
1. Sachin Tendulkar (Haryana vs Mumbai at Rohtak)
There are very few things which bring people’s attention to domestic cricket in this country, but when it’s Sachin Tendulkar playing his last domestic match, you can be assured of a million eyeballs catching every action on the ground.
Lahli, a little-known place prior to this match, is now famous because of Tendulkar. Mediapersons are flocking to Chaudhary Bansi Lal stadium, which has a capacity of only 8,000 (further shortened to 5,200 due to additional security measures) and the Rohtak district in Haryana finds itself in such frenzy for the first time due to a cricket match.
The venue has a history of some low scores and if the pitch isn’t tampered with to make it a run-fest just to witness Tendulkar’s batting, it’ll be a good challenge for the Master Blaster as a preparation before his last two Tests against West Indies.
The likes of Zaheer Khan, Ajay Jadeja, Abhishek Nayar, Mohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane would all take a backseat in this match as India would tune in to watch Sachin Tendulkar bat in a remote venue in front of a small, but doting crowd.