Focus on India hopefuls in domestic season opener
Match factsSeptember 21-25, Bangalore
Start time 0930 IST (0400GMT)
Big PictureThe last time the Indian domestic season's curtain-raiser, the Irani Cup, commanded serious national attention was back in 2008, when Sourav Ganguly was famously omitted from a Rest of India side that was close to being a full-strength India team. Every year since then the Irani Cup has clashed either with an international series or, in the case of last season, with the Champions League Twenty20. This year, cricket fans' attention is firmly on the World Twenty20 where the country's biggest stars are, and with an India A squad currently touring New Zealand, several other Test hopefuls will be missing from the Irani Cup.
Still, the Rest of India side has six members of the Test squad that recently faced New Zealand, and start overwhelming favourites to retain a trophy they have won in each of the last six years. There is also Wriddhiman Saha, India's back-up Test wicketkeeper, and Dinesh Karthik has been picked ahead of Parthiv Patel, who captained Rest of India last season. Opener Shikhar Dhawan will have fond memories of last year's Irani Cup, after hitting 150-plus in both innings, and will have to turn in something similar to return to the selectors' attention after a poor A tour of the Caribbean.
With domestic run-machines Cheteshwar Pujara, S Badrinath and Ajinkya Rahane also in the Rest of India line-up, Rajasthan have a huge challenge ahead. To make matters worse, they are missing several key players. One of the rocks of their top order, Aakash Chopra, has moved on to Himachal Pradesh, and two of their brightest young talents - middle-order batsman Ashok Menaria and fast bowler Rituraj Singh (26 wickets in four Ranji matches last season) - are with the A side in New Zealand.
Their captain Hrishikesh Kanitkar said the side had the talent to cope with the losses. "Aakash Chopra was an important part of the team right from seeing off the new ball to making big runs. But his absence gives an opportunity to a youngster. Ankit Lamba is the man for the job. He has done very well so far." If all that was enough of a challenge, Rajasthan have also lost their home advantage, as heavy rains forced the match out of Jaipur.
Players to watch
Ishant Sharma was fast-tracked into the Test side when still a teenager, and after a fruitful tour of Australia in 2007-08, India seemed to have discovered a top-quality fast bowler. It hasn't quite gone to plan for Ishant, though despite almost always being a part of the XI since then. He seemed to have got his mojo back after a successful tour of West Indies last year, but forgettable series followed during the nightmarish visits to England and Australia. He is yet to play top-flight cricket after a lengthy lay-off due to an ankle surgery, and has lost his starting spot in the Test side to Umesh Yadav. With eight home Tests coming up, and India likely to field only two quicks in most of those, he needs to perform here to remind the new set of selectors of his ability.
At 32, time is running out for S Badrinath. For ages he has been one of the most consistent batsmen on the domestic circuit, but kept out first by India's legendary middle-order quartet, and then by younger challengers. His most recent India chance came during the Caribbean visit in June last year, where he began with a Man-of-the-Match performance in the Twenty20 (his only India match in the format), before failing three times in the one-dayers to again find himself on the sidelines. Recalled to the national squad after VVS Laxman's retirement last month, he has to score big if he wants to grab the No. 6 spot from Suresh Raina.
Left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh was one of the stars of India's recent Under-19 World Cup victory, and came in for high praise for his performance, none higher than Ian Chappell's comment that Harmeet was "the best spin bowler in any Test side bar England". That compliment sits oddly with Harmeet's struggle to get a first-class game: with Mumbai already having two left-arm spinners in Ankeet Chavan and Iqbal Abdulla, Harmeet has played only three first-class matches so far, despite debuting nearly three years ago. Even in the Irani squad, there is a senior left-arm spinner in Pragyan Ojha ahead of him. Will he get a game?
Pitch and conditionsBoth captains had similar views on the nature of the track at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Cheteshwar Pujara, who played in the Bangalore Test earlier this month, said: "Looking at the wicket, we will go for three fast bowlers. There will be help for the fast bowlers in the initial couple of days as we saw in the Test match and it might turn later on." Kanitkar also said Rajasthan would look at a similar bowling line-up: "It will definitely help seam bowling. It has a bit of grass on it. But it is a wicket that supports fair cricket. We will also field three seamers."
Quotes"We are playing a domestic match after a long time. For those who have not played Tests and ODIs recently, it is an opportunity to keep in touch with the game and start performing and get confidence out of this match."
Pujara on the importance of the Irani Cup match
"A couple of seasons back, Rajasthan have never won the Ranji for 76 years. So this record is not that imposing, it is just 10 years old. Hopefully, we will be able to win it this time."
Kanitkar on being told that Rest of India have only lost twice this century
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo