New Delhi: The seventh sound of the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season gets underway across the country on Saturday, with the previous round having resulted in six wins, including some exhilarating results and draws. Punjab have booked their place in the quarter-finals and remain head and shoulder above all others with 32 points, but below there is a tight battle to reach the knockout phase. Three teams stand on 20 and 17 points, one has 16, two 15 and another 14. Heading into the third-last round before the quarter-finals start on January 6, it’s too close to call who could join Punjab in the knockout.
Here’s a look at the Group A matches starting December 15.
Saurashtra v Mumbai at Rajkot: Hosts Saurashtra, second in Group A behind Punjab, have a four-point advantage over heavyweights Mumbai but are without their star allrounder, Ravindra Jadeja. Jadeja had a big role to play in Saurashtra's 270-run win over Bengal last round, scoring 70 and 68 and taking four wickets in each innings. But he is away in Nagpur playing his first Test match and that deprives Saurashtra of their leading run-getter and wicket-taker.
Saurashtra will thus be reliant on left-arm spinner Nayan Doshi who took six wickets in the win over Bengal, and the batsmen to step up. Sheldon Jackson is coming off an unbeaten century and Saurashtra can see that as a positive in Jadeja’s absence.
Mumbai will be somewhat buoyant after coming close to beating Punjab on a manic final day's play on Tuesday, on which 19 wickets fell. Having conceded the first-innings lead, Mumbai almost beat Punjab after left-arm spinner Ankeet Chavan snared 9 for 23, the third-best figures in Ranji Trophy history, to skittle the opposition for just 59. Set an improbable 155 in 11 overs, Mumbai reached 62 for 2 in six overs before giving up. On 11 points after five matches, Mumbai must start winning matches to have stay in the reckoning for the quarter-finals. The fact that Rohit Sharma reached form with 203 in the last game augurs well.
Madhya Pradesh v Punjab at Gwalior: Having failed to close out what looked a straightforward victory on day four against Railways in Bhubaneshwar this week, hosts Madhya Pradesh are in need of points. They won't find it easy to collect any against table-toppers Punjab, who will be determined to claim victory after a shaky draw in Mumbai last round.
On 14 points after five matches, MP need to go past fellow Group A members Saurashtra and Gujarat who have 15 each and catch up with Uttar Pradesh, Baroda and Services (each on 20 currently). Their bowlers failed to bowl Railways out after they had slipped to 54 for 5 at stumps on day four, still trailing by 100 runs in the second innings. Punjab, meanwhile, will be smarting from a second-innings total of 59 in Mumbai, sparked by Chavan's remarkable analysis.
Railways v Rajasthan at Bhubaneswar: Railways averted defeat against MP thanks to a fighting century from Mahesh Rawat and his stubborn 148-run stand with MP Madkaikar, and took one point to stay at sixth position on the Group A table. Their opponents are defending champions Rajasthan, virtually out of the reckoning for the quarter-finals and sitting at the bottom of the pile with five points from five matches.
Railways are not out of content_cnion, and also have an extra match in hand over several teams. But they will need to win their remaining three matches to gain on those who are pushing for a spot in the knockouts. Playing at home for another match, and coming off a face-saving draw, may be the tonic needed to stay alive this season.
In round six, Rajasthan were beaten by Gujarat to suffer their second loss. The final day’s play looked set for a draw, but left-arm spinner Rakesh Dhurv ran through the Rajasthan line-up with 8 for 31, taking his match haul to a team-record 14 for 96. After that performance, it is hard to see Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s team pull off a resounding win over the hosts.
Bengal v Hyderabad at Kolkata: Bengal (seven points) lead Hyderabad by one point, and both teams desperately need wins to keep alive their flagging hopes of staying alive in the competition.
Bengal’s season has hit a roadblock in the news that their captain Manoj Tiwary has been ruled out for at least six weeks with a back strain. Further, their bowling spearhead remains on the sidelines of India’s Test squad in Nagpur. The left-arm spinner Iresh Saxena was excellent in defeat to Saurashtra, snaring 11 for 150, and will be called on to again carry Bengal’s attack. After indifferent performances in Rajkot, the home team could also do with something special from Laxmi Ratan Shukla and Shami Ahmed.
Hyderabad did not feature in round six and their chances of moving forward hinge largely on the top order, especially since VVS Laxman has pulled out of this match with a troublesome back injury. Hyderabad were forced to follow in their last appearance against Gujarat, and the bowling has largely been inadequate. In hopes of reviving their quarter-final hopes, the team has infused youth into the squad by bringing in the uncapped Parth Jhala, Mehdi Hasan and reserve wicketkeeper Habib Ahmed in place of Abhinav Kumar, Lalit Mohan and MA Khader.