The countdown has begun for the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy knock-out. Over the next three weeks seven knock out matches will be played starting with the five-day quarter-finals at four cities from Sunday (January 6) at Mumbai (Mumbai v Baroda), Rajkot (Saurashtra v Karnataka), Jamshedpur (Jharkhand and Punjab) and Indore (Uttar Pradesh and Services). The winner will be known by the end of this month and as an incentive it will immediately get to field its full team in the Zal Irani Cup match against the Rest of India.

For obvious reasons teams covet the Ranji Trophy; not because the winner will take home a prize money of Rs. 2 crore, the runner-up Rs. 1 crore and the losing semi-finalists Rs. 50 lakh each, but mainly because it provides the players a platform to show their mettle in a major competition and bring them to the centre stage in the knock-out stage and more so if their teams reach the final.

Recent examples of players who excelled in the Ranji Trophy are Saurashtra’s Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravinder Jadeja, Delhi seamer Parvinder Awana and Bengal seamers Ashok Dinda and Shami Ahmed. They made maximum use of the opportunities the tournament offered and got the nod from the national selectors. Medium-pacer and a competent batsman Bhuvneshwar Kumar is the latest among the number of players, who by his sheer perseverance, weight of performances and terrific show of ambition has been selected to play for India in the limited over (Twenty20 and 50 overs) internationals against Pakistan.

Pessimistic voices and arm-chair critics have run down the BCCI’s domestic tournaments. It’s also become a habit among some former retired players to needle the present-day players saying they are only interested in playing in the IPL and for money. Thankfully the majority --- and this includes many cricketers who have played for India across formats of the game --- feel that the ultimate aim of the budding youngster is to excel in the Irani Cup, Duleep Trophy and Ranji Trophy --- all prestigious first class tournaments that develop a player for Test cricket and also the other senior tournaments organised by the BCCI.

Any first class match would quickly send a message that the players are a serious lot. A case in point is the recent league matches played with intensity between Karnataka and Maharashtra at the Subrata Roy Sahara Stadium, Pune, Mumbai and Madhya Pradesh at Indore, Jharkhand and Services at Delhi, Saurashtra and Madhya Pradesh at Rajkot, Andhra and Kerala at Cuddapah and between Delhi and Vidarbha at Nagpur.

Karnataka won the match and qualified for the quarter-finals with only ten balls of the mandatory bowled remaining to be bowled. Shot out for 99 in the first innings, the Maharashtra batsmen, notably Ankit Bawne, stood their ground in the second innings and put up a brilliant batting display.

Batsmen C.M.Gautam scored an unbeaten 264 and Stuart Binny 168 and seamers Abhimanyu Mithun, Binny and H.S.Sharath played their part for Karnataka taking 17 wickets. Left arm seamer Zaheer Khan, Pujara and debutant left arm spinner Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, seamer Ajay Singh Yadav were instrumental in Mumbai, Saurashtra and Jharkhand’s success. Yadav’s 11 wicket haul helped Jharkhand score a win against Services and pip Andhra on superior quotient. These performances, among many, were quite remarkable and made in pressure situations and with the sole intention of taking their teams to the next stage.

The India `A’ team for the warm up match against England has successful players of this season like Jalaj Saxena, Ishwar Pandey, Rishi Dhawan, Paras Dogra, Mohit Sharma, Parvez Rasool and consistent players Robin Bist, Kedar Jadhav, Ashok Menaria, Rohit Motwani and Akshay Darekar. Motwani, who captains Maharashtra, has scored 400 plus runs each in the last four seasons and has 85 victims behind the wicket. Even someone like S.Sreesanth had to log in overs in threee Ranji Trophy matches to be picked for the one-day warm up match against England.

The last season’s quarter-finalists were: Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Karnataka, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. This time strong teams like Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Bengal do not figure in the knock-out and the winner of the tournament in the last two seasons, Rajasthan have failed to advance. After mediocre showing in the last few years Punjab has returned to the forefront in style and newcomers in Jharkhand and Services should be delighted with the progress they have made. It’s after playing hard and focused cricket over a period of 96 sessions and 32 days that these teams of made the cut. It’s easily the most influential tournament of Indian cricket the players see it as a stepping stone for success and seek recognition.

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