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    Ranji Trophy, round 3: Can Jharkhand catch up with Assam?

    New Delhi: The third round of the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season gets underway across the country on Saturday, with eight teams having posted outrights wins so far. With several others languishing at the bottom of their respective groups, the onus will be on senior players to try and inspire their sides to better performances and more points. Here's a look at the Group C matches starting November 17. Kerala v Assam at Mallapuram: Group C has been a fine one to keep tabs on, thanks largely to the exploits of Dheeraj Jadhav's Assam. With 14 points in two matches, Assam have a six-point lead ahead of their nearest rivals Jharkhand, and victory over a struggling Kerala at Mallapuram will further build that lead should Goa restrict Jharkhand at Jamshedpur. Assam's success has been driven by their bowlers, in chief the veteran offspinner Arlen Konwar whose 14 wickets at 17.71 are the second best in the Ranji Trophy season. Konwar’s maiden ten-wicket haul against Jharkhand in the last week was a superb performance, and a major reason in Assam’s 53-run win. Also making an impact for Assam has been J Syed Mohammad, the left-arm spinner from Tamil Nadu who gained prominence with his performances for IPL franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore a couple seasons ago, in his first season of first-class cricket. He marked his debut with 89 off 170 balls and four wickets in Tripura’s second innings in round one, and against Jharkhand spun out seven wickets. Such performances can do wonders for teams, and just what boost it gives a former Plate League team like Assam remains do be seen. Assam are up against hosts Kerala, who languish at the bottom of Group C with one point. That one outing in round one was a draw against Himachal Pradesh, fashioned by a fine rearguard action from Rohan Prem that denied the home team four points on an engaging final day. The other positive was a maiden first-class century from 17-year-old Sanju Samson. Kerala will need more from their batsman, and the key will be dismissing Jadhav early and countering Mohammad and Konwar. Jharkhand v Goa at Jamshedpur: Jharkhand blew a shot at victory in their previous match at the Keenan Stadium, but will be eying at catching up with Assam as they face Goa. The key to his match will be which team plays spin better, pitting two left-arm-spinning captains together on a surface in which 40 wickets fell inside four days in round two. Jharkhand have been led admirably by Shahbaz Nadeem, who happens to be the season’s leading wicket-taker with 17 at 14.82. Nadeem featured heavily in his team’s win over Jammu & Kashmir in round one, and took eight wickets against Assam. Supporting him in Jamshedpur was Sunny Gupta with seven wickets, and the slow-bowling pair pose the biggest threat to Goa's batsmen. What Jharkhand really need is a bigger effort from Saurabh Tiwary, their prime batsman, and runs from Ishank Jaggi and Manish Vardhan. Jaggi, the No. 3, has just 34 runs from three innings and opener Vardhan tallies 52. Goa are coming off a draw against J&K from which they took three points. The addition of Manvinder Bisla, the former Himachal Pradesh and Haryana batsman, brought immediate dividends when he scored 80 from No. 3, and a century opening stand from Amogh Desai and Swapnil Asnodkar were also positives for Shadab Jakati. The captain also snared four wickets in J&K’s second innings and a four-wicket haul from Desai was also of substance. Himachal Pradesh v Andhra at Nadaun: Aakash Chopra’s team will play its third consecutive match at home when it hosts Andhra in round three. Himachal Pradesh have three points in two matches, but will now want to get a win on board. Twice they have gone into the final day looking to force an outright win, and twice they have been thwarted by some dogged batting. What this has done is put focus on Himachal’s one-dimensional bowling. Veteran medium-pacer Vikramjeet Malik and allrounder Rishi Dhawan have eight wickets apiece, but strike-rates of 63.70 and 73.20 respectively mean that opposition batsmen have not been consistently challenged. Mohinderraj Sharma’s five victims have come at an average of 35.80 and strike-rate of 84, giving further indication that success with the ball has not come easily to Himachal. Especially in the second innings. Comfort in the high altitude of Nadaun still gives Himachal the advantage, as does the form of their prime batsmen. Paras Dogra’s 331 runs are the second best so far this season, while Dhawan and Amit Kumar have also scored centuries. Aakash Chopra and his opening partner Prashant Chopra have also made fifties, so batting is not the worry. Andhra managed three points from their last match against Tripura, but they don’t look like posing a massive threat to the home team. Shaky batting was the reason they conceded three points to Services in round one, while against Tripura the last nine wickets fell for 209 runs after the openers put on 227. Most worrying is the form of skipper AG Pradeep and veteran Amol Muzumdar, who average 7.50 and 7.00 respectively. Tripura v Services at Agartala: Three points separate Services from Tripura, and by the looks of it the former look like increasing that in round three. Services managed three points over Andhra by virtue of a first-innings lead in round one, and then held off Himachal last week for one more. For a side lacking star value, the team’s success rests on veteran Yashpal Singh and the likes of Soumya Swain and Anshul Gupta, each of whom scored runs in the last match.Tripura, captained by former India wicketkeeper Ajay Ratra and coached by former Delhi behemoth KP Bhaskar, have floundered so far. They lost to Assam by ten wickets and conceded the first-inning lead to Andhra, and have generally been let down by inconsistent batting and average bowling. They are a side reliant on the expertise of ‘professional’s like Ratra and former MP batsman Syed Abbas Ali, and need inspiration from elsewhere if they are to challenge other Group C teams.