Will Ranji Trophy produce another first-time champ?

New Delhi: A record 37 teams, including seven debutants from the northeast, participating in the Ranji Trophy beginning on Thursday pose a massive logistical challenge for a cricket board going through administrative chaos. The new teams — Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya , Bihar and Puducherry — did feature in the recently held 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy but playing red-ball cricket will be a tougher challenge.

Some argued that the new teams should have made a gradual progression to the Ranji Trophy, starting with age group cricket rather than rushing them into the country’s premier first-class competition. However, the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) went for an all-out approach and the newbies now find themselves thrown in at the deep end. The nine teams will compete against each other in the plate group, just like they did in Vijay Hazare Trophy where Bihar, who returned to domestic cricket after 18 years, and Uttarakhand, gave a good account of themselves.

Most of these teams will rely on their outstation players this season. More than 50 grounds will be used during the tournament, making it a huge logistical challenge but Saba Karim, BCCI GM of Cricket Operations, said his team is ready. “We are ready and we have proved that with the successful conduct of domestic tournaments (Vijay Hazare, Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy) leading up to the Ranji Trophy. Our team has been working round the clock ahead of the tournament,” Karim said. “The new teams have shown what they are capable of. No doubt, Ranji Trophy will be their toughest challenge but with the help of outstation players, I am eager to see how they perform,” he added.

While the nine teams aim to find their footing, domestic stars will be in action across Group ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. Test regular Cheteshwar Pujara is expected to play Saurashtra’s opener against Chattisgarh while spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and Murali Vijay have been named in the Tamil Nadu squad for their first game against Madhya Pradesh. With teams already announced for the four-Test series in Australia and the ‘A’ tour of New Zealand, exemplary performances in Ranji Trophy are unlikely to be rewarded. Group ‘A’ seems to be the toughest of all in the presence record champions Mumbai, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Saurashtra, Railways Chattisgarh, Vidarbha and Gujarat.

While Gujarat won their maiden title last season, Vidharbha were the winners the season before. It would be too early to speculate if there will be a first-time winner of Ranji Trophy. Perennial favourites Mumbai will be led by the stylish Shreyas Iyer, at least in their opener against Railways. The team will be high on confidence following their triumph in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Teenage star Prithvi Shaw will not feature against Railways as he still recovering from an injury he suffered during the Deodhar Trophy in Delhi last week.

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