AHMEDABAD: Indian cricket’s ‘backbone’, the Ranji Trophy, will make a much-anticipated return after two years amid the easing COVID-19 situation in the country, providing host of domestic cricketers an opportunity to make their name in red-ball cricket while giving veterans like Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara a final shot at resurrecting their Test careers.
A third wave of COVID-19 had threatened the premier domestic event for the second year in a row but the drop in infections has allowed the BCCI to conduct the 38-team event, a massive logistical task in the new normal of bio-secure environments.
All eyes will be on the opening fixture between defending champions Saurashtra and record 41-time champions Mumbai here with Rahane and Pujara on either side, aiming to make the big scores that have deserted them at the Test level for a while.
Both veterans have been working hard in the nets and their coaches feel a big knock is around the corner. Rahane and Pujara will need to make instant impact with the Test squad of Sri Lanka series expected to be announced soon.
Nine bio-bubbles have been created across nine venues in the country and the players had to quarantine for five days, leaving them only two days of training for the first round beginning on Thursday.
The players, however, are in no mood to complain. They are just happy that they are finally getting to test themselves in the toughest form of the game after two seasons of white-ball cricket.
The batters had almost forgotten the art of leaving the ball and bowlers the relentlessness of long spells. Both the departments are up for the challenge but their bodies might take longer to get used to the hard grind of red-ball cricket.
“It is great that red ball cricket is starting. Players have suffered and lost a lot in the last two years both financially and skill-wise. They all are looking forward to the challenge,” said Delhi coach Raj Kumar Sharma after the team’s first training session on Monday, echoing the views of all teams.
It is also set to be the shortest first-class season for most teams with sides only getting three league games, impacting their match fees and leaving them with little room for error.
Eight groups of four teams each have been formed at the elite level while six teams will fight it out in the plate group. The knockouts, barring the sole pre-quarterfinal, will be held in the post IPL phase starting May 30.
It will also be a high pressure game as it will potentially decide the only quarterfinalist from the group.
The national selectors will also finally get to see the upcoming talent in action.
Only one India A tour has taken place over the past 24 months, the selectors have had to refer to part performances with no first-class cricket played in the country.
Focus will also be on fringe India players including Priyank Panchal, Abhimanyu Easwaran and Hanuma Vihari, who had been controversially dropped for the home series against New Zealand before making the team for the away series in South Africa.
Among the India U-19 stars, skipper Yash Dhull and Raj Angad Bawa are expected to make their first-class debut soon after landing IPL contracts. Dhull will be in Guwahati playing for Delhi against Tamil Nadu.
Teams have been advised to keep two COVID-19 reserves in the squad. There is a good chance of a COVID outbreak midway into the game but the match will go on provided a team has a minimum of nine fit players.
Both teams will be awarded a point each if first innings is not completed.
The games will be played across Rajkot, Cuttack, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Delhi, Haryana, Guwahati and Kolkata.