Challenger Series 2004-05 February 5, 2005

New kids on the block

The Challenger Series gives the young hopefuls in India an excellent opportunity to test their skills against the best in the country. Cricinfo picks out six players who have broken through this season after consistent performances in the domestic circuit.

Suresh Raina Ranji Trophy - 482 runs in 6 games; Deodhar Trophy - 310 runs in 4 games

Thoughts of an 18-year-old left-hander bristling with aggression and consistently dismantling bowling attacks across the country can be a mouth-watering prospect. Suresh Raina might have scored just one first-class hundred in 12 games, but his crisp strokeplay and aggressive attitude produced half-centuries that have proved decisive. After an impressive Under-19 World Cup last year, Raina produced 482 runs in the Ranji Trophy for Uttar Pradesh this season - tenth on the run-scorers' list - at a strike-rate of 65.40 -the highest among the top 20 run-getters. And when the Deodhar Trophy ODIs came along he smacked two fifties and a hundred in four games, including a splendid 104-ball 129, 80 off which came in boundaries, against East Zone,

Niraj Patel Ranji Trophy - 735 runs in 7 games; Ranji ODIs - 309 runs in 4 games

Niraj Patel, the left-handed batsman from Gujarat, appears to have ended his hibernation. One of the heroes of India's triumphant Under-19 World Cup team in 2000, Patel soon vanished into the domestic maze. This season, though, has been a rich harvest: Patel topped the run-charts in the league phases of both the Ranji Trophy and the Ranji ODIs, where he averaged 103 in four games. Patel is unlikely to indulge in too much fireworks but by effectively handling the middle overs with some typically cheeky nudges and glides, he can perform the role of anchoring the innings.

Shikhar Dhawan Ranji Trophy - 461 runs in 6 games; Ranji ODIs - 254 runs in 4 games

Using his splendid performances in the Under-19 World Cup in Dhaka as a launching pad, Shikhar Dhawan has made the transition to first-class cricket look effortless. With 461 runs in the six Ranji Trophy games, Dhawan ended up being the highest run-scorer for Delhi, ahead of more experienced mates like Ajay Jadeja, Aakash Chopra and Mithun Manhas. His two centuries in the Ranji ODIs, where he averaged 127 in four games, were crucial in helping Delhi through to the knockout phase. A left-handed batsman with a penchant for scoring consistently, Dhawan's mix of solidity and flourish could give India Seniors an added edge.

Rajesh Pawar Ranji Trophy - 253 runs and 22 wickets in 6 games

Rajesh Pawar performing again at the Wankhede Stadium is a case of the return of the prodigal. Pawar, a left-arm spinner, began as a teenage sensation in Mumbai in 1996 and went on to bowl with Harbhajan Singh in the 1998 Under-19 World Cup in South Africa. Soon he was fast-tracked into a formidable Mumbai XI and after a glittering season in 2000, selection to the national squad seemed just a matter of time. Then began the steep slump when he managed just 30 wickets in the next three seasons and was soon struggling to find a permanent place in the Mumbai side. The shift to Baroda two years back began disastrously, with just three wickets in four games last year, but his inspirational effort with both bat and ball this season nearly took Baroda to the semi-finals and helped them win the West Zone Ranji ODI tournament.

Yusuf Pathan 286 runs and 17 wickets in 6 games

Yusuf Pathan has played fewer first-class matches than his younger brother, Irfan, has played Tests. But like Pawar, Yusuf's contribution with both bat and ball boosted Baroda's fortunes this season. Yusuf relies on his height to extract bounce from the pitch while bowling his legbreaks, and his economical spells played a vital role in Baroda's triumphant one-day season. He is also capable of giving the ball a mighty thwack in the late overs.

Rudra Pratap Singh Ranji Trophy - 34 wickets in 6 games

Another left-hander who first made the headlines in the Under-19 World Cup last year, Rudra Pratap Singh joined the long line of Indian left-arm seamers who have made an instant impact in the domestic season, taking 34 wickets in six Ranji Trophy games, the joint-highest for the season. During the World Cup, Singh also showed that he could bowl effectively at the death, and his contributions this season helped Uttar Pradesh win the league phase of the Ranji one-day tournament in the Central Zone.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is on the staff of Cricinfo.

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