September 15, 2003

Great idea, poor execution

Whatever its critics may say - and they usually point to the lack of spectator enthusiasm - the Challenger Series fulfils a certain role. With the star players' appearances in domestic cricket so severely rationed by a hectic international calendar, the Challenger gives the fringe players an all-too-rare opportunity to pit themselves against the best in the business.

That's the good part. On the debit side, the ad hoc manner in which the teams are chosen renders the exercise almost futile. Dividing the national team luminaries into three entities serves no real purpose, and it only lessens the intensity of the challenge that faces those looking to carve out a reputation.

The format needs revamping, and soon. The best way forward would be to have an India A team comprising players on the verge of a national call-up, rather than legends like Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble. It would also give the five wise men a chance to look at the leadership skills of the younger generation.

As for India B, the best solution would be to pick out the cream of the U-19 crop, and any other wild cards worth experimenting with. Had such a format been in place this year, we could have seen Munaf Patel - about whom reams have been written - in action, along with players like Stuart Binny who has impressed many at the junior level.

The criteria should be very clear in future. India Seniors are those in possession of the national cap, even if it sits uneasy on certain heads. India A should be those waiting off-stage, while India B showcases the new kids on the block, who are a season or two away from the big-time. Think of the incentive for the A and B teams to perform, pitted against the full might of India Seniors.

Charity picks have to be abandoned. Top level professional sport is characterised by ruthlessness, and there's no room at the top for honest pros like Vijay Bharadwaj and Satyajit Parab, to name just two. Catastrophes apart, they don't have a bat-out-of-hell chance of ever playing for India. The same could be said of Reetinder Singh Sodhi, whose skill levels have stagnated since he was throwing his weight around in the juniors.

But such criticisms aside, there were still those who utilised the Challenger platform to stake their claim for national honours, just as there were those who let slip a golden opportunity. Here, we take a look at some of the winners, and losers ...

Winners

Rohan Gavaskar
He scored 145 runs in three innings, including two pivotal knocks in winning causes. Unafraid to play strokes, he also improvised well in the latter stages of innings. That, allied to his displays on the India A tour of England, helped clinch a Rest-of-India berth.

Yuvraj Singh
The Yorkshire run-drought seemed to be a distant memory as Yuvraj punished the bowlers on placid batting wickets. The tournament's highest run-getter with 188, including a scintillating 82-ball 111 against India A in the round-robin phase.

Sridharan Sriram
He scored 176 runs at well over a run-a-ball, with some exciting, innovative strokeplay. Superb in the field, he can be justifiably disappointed over the Irani Trophy snub.

Hemang Badani
Made 73 and 61 not out, both in losing causes, while never exhibiting the composure, class and steely nerve that he did during his purple patch a couple of years ago.

Amit Bhandari
Figures of 4 for 144 from 23 overs were hardly impressive, but his ability to move the ball both ways, and the fact that Sachin Tendulkar didn't destroy him, marks him out for further selectorial interest. Whether he's good enough to compete for a new-ball slot is a moot point though. The competition won't always be so badly off-colour.

Lakshmipathy Balaji
The pick of the pace bowlers on show with 7 for 126, even if he did get carted around a bit in the second game. His accuracy was his greatest asset, and the no-ball that sent Tendulkar's stumps cartwheeling in the opening game has ensured that his name should be right at the top of the discussion list with Ashish Nehra doubtful for the New Zealand series.

Murali Kartik
On pitches where almost every bowler got slaughtered, Kartik bowled 18 tidy overs for 84 runs, and one wicket. No little earthquakes, but enough guile and control to suggest that he deserves a run or two in national colours.

Losers

Mohammad Kaif
Scored only 77 runs in three innings, and is now reliant on past reputation for his place in the one-day squad. The challengers are queuing up, and Kaif needs some big scores. Soon.

Ambati Rayudu
After all the hype, his two innings produced 6 runs. A perceived weakness against the short ball was exploited by bowlers like Ajit Agarkar. Back to the nets for Rayudu, the call from the seniors will have to wait.

Irfan Pathan Jr
After starting impressively against the seniors, his bowling was wayward and ordinary in the next two games. Impressed only in patches, and now seems to have slipped behind Balaji and Bhandari in the race for the third seamer's spot.

Sarandeep Singh
His 21 overs went for 133 runs, though he did manage three wickets. Unlikely to unseat Harbhajan in the foreseeable future.

Thilak Naidu
He may bat a little better than the other wicketkeeping contenders, but Naidu's wicketkeeping so so shockingly poor that you had to peer closely to make sure it wasn't Deep Dasgupta in disguise. He dropped catches, missed stumpings, and couldn't even gather the ball cleanly for run-outs.

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