For the first time in many years, the opening round of the Ranji Trophy, beginning on Friday (November 2), assumes massive significance simply because almost all the top stars will play for their respective states ahead of the Test series against England starting in Ahmedabad on November 15.
Several players will fly out of Mumbai on Thursday (November 1) evening at the conclusion of India A's three-day game against England, indicative of the players' desire to test out form and fitness ahead of the four-Test series against England. That players such as Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh, among others, as well as VVS Laxman, retired from international cricket, will be seen in action is exactly the tonic domestic cricket requires to raise its profile.
Among the host of matches that will simultaneously begin across several venues, two clashes will be keenly followed with the Test series looming. Tendulkar, who will be making his first Ranji Trophy appearance since the 2008-2009 final against Uttar Pradesh, and Zaheer feature in a strong 13-man Mumbai squad that will take on Railways at the Wankhede Stadium, while Delhi's away clash against Uttar Pradesh in Ghaziabad also matches up when it comes to star power.
RP Singh, ruled out with a knee injury, and Piyush Chawla, nursing a fractured thumb, will be missing but the game will feature several India internationals - Sehwag, Gambhir, Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Kaif and Praveen Kumar among them.
Of particular interest will be how well Sehwag and Gambhir, under pressure for quite sometime now following a string of ordinary performances, shape up against an attack that can be dangerous in helpful conditions. While their credentials and numbers can't be doubted, the worrying sign is the recent form of Sehwag and Gambhir, both individually and as an opening pair. Since 2011, the duo has added 605 runs in 11 Tests at 30.25, compared to 3505 runs in 35 Tests at an average of over 60 prior to that.
While Sehwag and Gambhir will be tested against UP, the next in line - Murali Vijay and Abhinav Mukund - will look to further boost their credentials when they take on Odisha in Cuttack. Vijay kickstarted the season with a double century against Rajasthan in the Irani Cup in Bangalore and followed it up with two centuries in the Challenger Series in Rajkot, while Mukund led India A in seamer-friendly conditions in New Zealand, where he made a hundred in the second four-day game. He also made an attractive 73 for India A against England.
R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, clear favourites to spearhead the Indian spin challenge, will welcome the opportunity of a first-class outing ahead of the Test series. Ashwin will join Vijay and Abhinav against Odisha, will Ojha will represent Hyderabad against Punjab in Mohali.
The Punjab-Hyderabad game is another high-profile one what with Harbhajan Singh, the Punjab captain, desperate to win his place back in the Test set-up. He can expect a serious test against Laxman, determined to lead Hyderabad to the Ranji Trophy title but with much to do as he marshals an inexperienced team. The match is also expected to feature Yuvraj, who could also be in line for a Test comeback following an impressive return to first-class cricket that includes a magnificent double century in the Duleep Trophy semifinal against Central Zone.
Cheteshwar Pujara, who took the No.3 slot during the Test series against New Zealand, will not be among those in action in the Ranji Trophy first round because Saurashtra have a bye, but he will play for Mumbai A squad against England in a three-day game starting at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on November 3.
With Pujara, Tendulkar and Kohli guaranteed middle-order berths, Yuvraj and Raina will have to up the ante, especially with Manoj Tiwary throwing his hat into the ring with a polished 93 against England. All three are also useful spin options.
Raina's limited-overs credentials are well established, but he has yet to convince the men who matter that he is the real deal when it comes to Test cricket despite having begun his career with a century on debut against Sri Lanka in Colombo more than two years back.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian captain, is indisposed and will not turn up for Jharkhand, making him perhaps the only one of the expected Test party without a first-class game going into the series against England.
With a host of India internationals as well as fringe players in action, the first set of Ranji Trophy matches of the 2012-13 season should go a long way towards returning interest in domestic cricket, which has suffered in the recent past with viewership almost non-existent.