A return to past splendour
Duleep Trophy, after three seasons of being the season kick-off tournament, has got back its due status: of a tournament played after the Ranji Trophy in which the season's best players compete. It is back to the 75 best players outside the Indian side taking up the unique challenge of competing through zonal teams made up of the best from various states in the respective zones. To add to the competition, England Lions will be the visiting team this year. Cricinfo takes a look at the build-up of the six teams
Last time Mohammad Kaif led the Central Zone side, they won the Duleep Trophy in 2004-05. By the semi-final stage of the Ranji Trophy this year, Kaif - by then certain to be the Central Zone captain - would have quite enviably started thinking how to utilise the most potent attack in the country: pace bowlers - Praveen Kumar, Sudeep Tyagi, Pankaj Singh and Sanjay Bangar, and spinners - Piyush Chawla, Murali Kartik and Praveen Gupta. Following the Ranji final, some of the confusion must have cleared as Kumar and Chawla have been released to join the Indian team for the ODIs in Australia. But the attack, even without the two, should pose a threat to most of the batting line-ups.
In Tyagi and Bangar, they have the leading wicket-takers from the Super and Plate Leagues respectively. Pankaj, before leaving for Australia, had taken 26 wickets from five matches.
If the Centrals Zone's bowling attack is enviable, Kaif is left with the unenviable task, just like with Uttar Pradesh, of leading an unproven batting line-up. Apart from him and Tanmay Srivastava, centurion in the Ranji final, Rajasthan's Robin Bist and Vineet Saxena are the only two batsmen from the Super League. Harshad Rawle scored a century in the Plate final. The batting is yet to look the strongest, but if they can give their bowlers enough runs they could go close to repeating the success of 2004-05 - Kaif, Bangar, Kartik and Naman Ojha were members of that side too.
In 2003-04 when India started the experiment of inviting one foreign team to play the Duleep Trophy, England 'A' were the first visitors. A team that comprised of Kevin Pietersen, Simon Jones, Matt Prior and Sajid Mahmood lost both their matches outright, including a successful 503-run chase by South Zone. The Lions, who play Central Zone and West Zone in the league stage, will want to improve on the precedent.
Monty Panesar, this year, is their biggest player, and should generate a lot of interest. Apart from Panesar, their captain Michael Yardy, wicketkeeper James Foster, Ed Joyce, and Liam Plunkett have been in and around the England team for quite a while. Apart from Panesar, who will most likely tour India for Tests later this year, upcoming pace bowlers like Graham Onions will cherish this opportunity of playing in subcontinent conditions.
Delhi, the Ranji champions, deservedly dominate the North Zone's line-up with six players, but the defending champions will be depleted because of the absence of their key players. Gautam Gambhir, off for the ODIs in Australia, and Pradeep Sangwan and Virat Kohli, representing India in the Under-19 World Cup, also would have made it easily.
Aakash Chopra, whose 188 in the last year's final secured North Zone the trophy, and Shikhar Dhawan will make a dangerous opening combination. Mithun Manhas, Punjab's Uday Kaul, Services' Yashpal Singh and Himachal Pradesh's Paras Dogra will make up the middle order. Rajat Bhatia, easily the most valuable player this Ranji season with 525 runs and 26 wickets, including a big century when Delhi were 36 for 4 in the final, will be just the perfect No. 6 for them.
In Sangwan's absence, North Zone will look to the Himachal duo of Ashok Thakur and Vikramjeet Singh Malik to lead the pace attack. The two took 62 wickets between them this season. Joginder Sharma, who didn't have a great season, does provide them an option. Chetanya Nanda and Amit Mishra will be their main spinners.
With three teams from West Zone making the Ranji semi-finals this year - Mumbai not being one of them - West Zone put up a solid challenge at this year's Duleep Trophy. Parthiv Patel, the leading run-scorer in the Plate League, will lead the side, which boasts of internationals like Ramesh Powar, Munaf Patel, Ajit Agarkar and Yusuf Pathan. In Cheteshwar Pujara, they have the Super League's highest scorer as well as other heavy scorers, Rakesh Solanki, Niraj Patel and Harshad Khadiwale.
Sandeep Jobanputra and Siddharth Trivedi will give Agarkar and Munaf a tough fight for places in the starting XI, if both of them are fit, that is. Then they have Maharshtra's Samad Fallah as a wildcard. Powar, Pathan and Rakesh Dhurv will make up the allrounder-spinner combo, with Rajesh Pawar one of the reserves.
The best part for West Zone is that they have not been hit by selections to the Indian team, so they are one of the strong contenders this time round.
This hasn't been the year for the teams from South Zone, who haven't won the title since 1996-97: Tamil Nadu played it too safe despite having all their games at home, Hyderabad had to fight to avoid relegation, Karnataka were disappointing after Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid left for national duty. But Andhra and Kerala surprised, with Andhra finishing at No. 3 in their group and Kerala making the semi-finals of the Plate League.
R Vinay Kumar and Sunil Joshi, Nos 2 and 6 on the wicket-takers' list, are absent from the South Zone squad. There could have been some logic in not playing Joshi, as younger spinners - Pragyan Ojha and S Anish - have been picked, but Vinay Kumar will surely feel disappointed for having missed the selection.
S Badrinath, M Vijay and D Ravi Teja will expectedly make the core of the batting line-up, with support from Raiphi Gomez, Arjun Yadav and Swapnil Asnodkar. Sreesanth's selection for the ODIs in Australia will weaken their attack, with NC Aiyappa and D Kalyankrishna in lead roles.
It has been a contrasting year for Orissa and Bengal, but it nonetheless ended in disappointment for both. Bengal got relegated and Orissa came within a favourable result of a semi-final and lost. The two states dominate the East Zone side, which has never won a Duleep Trophy. The Orissa players will look to impress furthermore, while for Bengal players this is one final go at an elite first-class competition before they start their fight in the Plate League.
The East Zone bowling attack comprises mainly the Bengal attack - Ranadeb Bose and SS Paul - and Orissa's Mohantys - Debasis and Basanth - who were the key to their success this year.
Manoj Tiwary, who fizzled out after a sparkling start to the season, has been given another opportunity, and again he has to carry out the responsibility he failed to do with Bengal: to lead a weak batting line-up. He will have captain Shiv Sunder Das for company. The ones who need to rally around them are Bengal openers Arindam Das and Anustup Mujumdar and Jharkhand captain Manish Vardhan.