Injury worries for East, Central on green track
For a tournament that comprises four games between five entities called 'zones', making them assemble teams that are together for barely three weeks, the Duleep Trophy still attracts its share of attention. It is perceived by some as having become irrelevant in a packed domestic season; others say it is still the gold standard for domestic cricket. It is the only tournament in which the Kookaburra ball is used, as opposed to the SG which is the norm in India.
One thing is clear though. The Duleep Trophy has been, and largely still is, a showcase of the country's best domestic talent. The finalists this time, Central Zone and East Zone, have their share of fringe India players like Wriddhiman Saha and Piyush Chawla, and past stars like Mohammad Kaif. They have the first-class season's top three wicket-takers - Ashok Dinda, TP Sudhindra and Pankaj Singh. They have the top two run-getters - Robin Bist and Vineet Saxena. A couple of national selectors are expected to watch the game.
This is the final chance for Test hopefuls to get noticed before the season descends into a spate of state one-dayers, zonal one-dayers, state Twenty20s … all climaxing into the clutter of the IPL.
Both sides are banking on their fast bowlers, with the grassy Indore pitch looking a complete contrast to the lifeless strip that made for a sleepy Ranji Trophy final in Chennai last month. Chawla, the Central Zone captain, remarked on how green the surface appeared - an unusual sight in India, except when a desperate home team dishes out green tops in search of an outright win.
Indications were that the grass would stay tomorrow. It did for the Ranji quarter-final between Madhya Pradesh and Mumbai in January. The visitors saw the grass, the overcast conditions and the cold weather, and chose to bowl. Fifteen wickets fell on the first day, two on the second, six on the third, and one on the fourth. Mukesh Sahni, the MP coach, had said then that despite all the green cover, the pitch tends to ease out on the second day, and becomes good for batting. The surface was looking dry beneath the grass, with the afternoon sun beating down hard.
Samundar Singh Chauhan, the curator, said that the pitch for this game had more live grass compared to the one for the Ranji quarter-final. Seemingly, Central - who have several MP players for whom this is a home ground - would bowl if they won the toss.
Chawla said that this being a five-day game, sides always had a chance to come back even if they did poorly in the first innings. A five-day game also leaves a side with a huge disadvantage if one of the bowlers gets injured, which is why Central were worried about the fitness of Pankaj.
The fast bowler was feeling stiffness in his shoulder, though he practised without any visible discomfort. Chawla said Pankaj had a 70% chance of playing; Rituraj Singh will take his Rajasthan team-mate's place if Pankaj is ruled out tomorrow morning.
East were also hit by an injury to one of their fast bowlers. Debashish Mohanty, the East coach, said that Abu Nechim had been ruled out. One of Bengal's Shami Ahmed or Tripura's Rana Dutta will replace Nechim.
East have historically been the weakest side in the Duleep Trophy and are the only zone never to have won the tournament. Of the four other zones, Central have won the least number of times. Both sides would feel this is their best chance.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo