August 6, 2003

The contenders

If ever there was a good time to be a first-class cricketer in India, it is now. Breaking with tradition, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has named a mammoth 36-man squad for a pre-season training camp. Virtually anyone who has performed well - in domestic cricket or on A tours - has been rewarded with the chance to train under the vigilant eyes of John Wright and Greg King, the newly appointed physio.

The Indian board doesn't lavish much attention on domestic cricketers - unless, of course, they make it into the national side. Recently, though, It has taken many steps to nudge Indian cricket along in the right direction. The Challenger Trophy is being held at a time when India is not playing international cricket; the Irani trophy has been made virtually a must-play event for the big names in Indian cricket.

In some ways, the naming of 36 probables to attend two camps - one for pre-season conditioning and another for practice - is the board's manner of formally kicking off the domestic season. In recent years, the beginning and end of seasons has been increasingly blurred, with a mind-numbing number of one-day tournaments being played.

The camp starting on August 14 will miss one man. Few people seem to know what's going on with Javagal Srinath's mind and body. These days he seems to be either announcing a retirement, an injury or a comeback, depending on the time of the month. Despite all this, he remains one of the most valuable medium-pacers in Sourav Ganguly's armoury. He may not be missed much in the home series against New Zealand, where the tyros, along with the spinners, can shoulder much of the load. But in Australia, where the pitches are true and the batsmen fairly fearless, Srinath's loopy slower ball and new-found probing line outside the off will be invaluable.

For the moment though, it's not Srinath that Ganguly and co will be focussed on. There are a few slots in the Indian team that remain unclaimed, and a healthy number of contenders to step up and fill the breach. Parthiv Patel's glovework might be effortless and natural, but his batting remains a worry, and with this in mind the selectors have given Thilak Naidu a chance to impress. In and out of favour with the Karnataka team in recent years, Naidu was once the hot thing in South Zone cricket, scoring runs by the bucketful with his honest biffing, backing it up well with safe performances behind the stumps. This year's Challenger series represents Naidu's best chance to finally make that transition to the highest level.

If wicketkeeping proves a spot of bother, the opening slots have been downright troublesome. Sanjay Bangar and Virender Sehwag have done an effective job at the top of the innings, but this is a band-aid fix rather than a cure. Realising that, there's a spate of youngsters competing for the two spots.

Gautam Gambhir is a frontrunner, adding A team runs to a highly successful Ranji season. Wasim Jaffer may struggle to drive off the front foot, but timing has never been his problem. After playing a vital role in Mumbai's Ranji Trophy success, Jaffer capped a prolific A tour of England with 218 in the last game. Then there's that youngster John Wright rates ever so highly: Shiv Sunder Das. After a promising India debut, and inevitable comparisons to Sunil Gavaskar, a run of bad form cruelly exposed technical flaws in his game. Over the last season, he's worked hard to iron those faults out, and will almost certainly be a part of Wright's plans.

Siddharth Trivedi might have been overjoyed at seeing his name on the list of probables, but he should be realistic. Despite his relaxed, almost Venkatesh Prasad-esque run-up and action, he's far down the pecking order in the list of aspiring seamers. Aavishkar Salvi, having already played for India, looks very much the item. Lakshmipathy Balaji is better than his one-day debut against West Indies last year would indicate. Irfan Pathan Jr keeps the selectors on their toes, regularly serving up wickets by the plateful. And there's Amit Bhandari, trying desperately to prove that he's not the same bowler who got belted for 75 runs from 10 overs in an Asia Cup game against Pakistan two years ago.

And what of Hemang Badani? Once thought of as the Michael Bevan of Indian one-day cricket, Badani has failed to cement his place in the side. He simmers in the sidelines with noteworthy performances that include a century in the Ranji final. Add to this list the allround capabilities of Reetinder Sodhi and Ramesh Powar, as well as the live-wire batting of Mithun Manhas and you've covered virtually every cricketer worth his salt in the country.

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