A stage to showcase talent
Window of opportunity. That's what the Challenger Trophy has always been. On the face of it that same spirit should be evident in the latest edition that rolls on for the next four evenings starting on Thursday at Motera. But the wannabes and the been-there-and-wanting-to-be-there-again aiming to get through that window will have to prepare for a cramped squeeze-in.
Unless any player gets injured or the selectors dare to actually phase out the seniors, not many spots are up for grabs. With majority of the Indian one-day squad making use of the short interval before they return to the international arena against Pakistan in early November, this edition might just be one for the record.
Last time the intensity was apparent with the likes of Sourav Ganguly fighting to retain his place. The timing was right too: it was the beginning of the season and the international players were fresh from a break, and the challengers had an opportunity to pit themselves against the best. This time, with the first XI being given a break after a packed four-month shift, the event has been robbed of glitter, occasion, and needle.
Lalchand Rajput, the coach of the India Red team, and who was the interim manager for the recently concluded series against Australia, said that despite the absence of the top rack, a good performance here could still stir the selectors into pushing for a name when they meet to pick the squad for the first two ODIs against Pakistan. "It's still a platform for youngsters to perform consistently," said Rajput, whose squad had a light practice session under lights, along with the India Blues squad that was overseen by Praveen Amre. The Blues captain Virender Sehwag was scheduled to arrive later on Wednesday evening.
If it was Ganguly's presence that gave Challenger the edge last time, it may be the turn of Sehwag, Munaf Patel, Piyush Chawla, Suresh Raina, Mohammad Kaif, Parthiv Patel to draw the crowds in. It's also a chance for someone like Dinesh Karthik, who seems to have lost his way after a sparkling Test series against England, to re-estabilish himself, while others like Ranadeb Bose, Ishant Sharma, Yo Mahesh, Manoj Tiwary and Subramaniam Badrinath have an opportunity to press their cases too.
One of the national selectors told Cricinfo why the tournament, despite its low-star value, was important. "We'll be looking at the performances of players who are coming out of injuries to determine their match fitness. Secondly, also at certain players who perfrom consistently." He said that with India playing constantly during the season, the selectors' rotation policy would require a solid bench-strength.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India's one-day captain, had said he was in favour of the rotation policy. "It's an advantage and you have to keep your outfit fresh."
Parthiv Patel, who has been scoring consistently on the first-class front over the last year, feels playing the Challengers is "a great opportunity for me to carry forward my consistency." Leader of the Indian Green team who play their first game on Friday, Parthiv also said that the event is the best way for the lesser-knowns and the unknowns to make their mark. "Guys like Robin Uthappa were spotted at the Challengers. That is what Challenger Trophy is all about. It's a short way of getting recognised."
The three pitches that will be used for the four games are all, in the curator's jargon, surface-free-grass tracks. While there is some grass cover which will help the fast bowlers get bounce and movement, batsmen should relish the opportunity to play their strokes once they've settled in.
The curator, Dhiraj Parsana, assures it would be a one-day wicket with consistent bounce. The locals' prediction of the scores hovering around the 270-mark is supported by the scorecards in the last four games played here during the the 2006 ICC Champions Trophy.
As for the critical dew factor, that makes the toss that much more important, Parsana feels it could come down to the players' skills and strategies to defeat that and force a result. "Teams need to focus on their strengths and then choose what is best for them. In the end it's the team psychology which will determine the result."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo