Eye on Test spots in Irani tie
February 6-10, 2013
Start time 9.30 (0400 GMT)
The Irani Cup gets some breathing space at last. Until last year, it had been the inaugural game of India's domestic season but was away from the limelight due to the cricketing events it clashed with, like the Champions League in 2010-11 and the World Twenty20 last year. The decision to reschedule the match at the end of the first-class season, retain the big names and have the Ranji Trophy champions take on Rest of India soon after the final has been widely welcomed.
The build-up to the game on February 6 has gone some way towards justifying the switch, with both Mumbai and Rest of India boasting most of their best players, the newer ones competing for spots in the India-Australia Tests to follow, and generating considerable interest in a contest that in recent years had been reduced to a sideshow.
Rest of India have won the Irani Cup seven times in a row, Mumbai last won in 1997-98. The hosts have lost Zaheer Khan and captain Ajit Agarkar to injuries, but still retain a strong line-up. Sachin Tendulkar is playing the Irani Cup for the first time since 2003-04 and batted a good 45 minutes at the nets on the eve of the match. Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma are striving for a Test place, Dhawal Kulkarni is high on confidence after his match-winning performance in the Ranji Trophy final, Abhishek Nayar will lead the side after a successful all-round Ranji season, and Wasim Jaffer has shown admirable resolve on the field amid adversity off it - his father, who was in hospital for half the season, died days after Jaffer was named Man of the Match in the Ranji final.
Despite the absence of Gautam Gambhir, Cheteshwar Pujara, R Ashwin, Virat Kohli, and MS Dhoni - three of those five players were named in the squads for the BCCI Corporate Trophy - Rest of India are well-staffed. Led by Virender Sehwag, who is looking to regain form after being dropped from the England ODIs, Rest of India bat deep, have some experienced hands and include some promising young players who've already made an impression on the international circuit, chiefly the Bengal seamer Shami Ahmed.
The game is the first of three ahead of the Australia series where players can stake their claim for a place in the national side; the competition in the batting is more intense given the limited spots available but there is enough uncertainty in the bowling to keep many interested. It's not known if Zaheer will be fit for the Australia series, Umesh Yadav is recovering from a lower-back stress injury, and only Ishant Sharma seems likely to keep his place. Shami, Kulkarni, Ishwar Pandey and Abhimanyu Mithun will be eyeing a chance; Sreesanth, too, has returned from a long lay-off. As for spin, even though Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha are favourites to start in the Test series, it won't be a surprise if Harbhajan Singh's past record against Australia plays on the selectors' minds when they sit down to pick the squad.
In the spotlight
Is time running out for Virender Sehwag? After his century against England in Ahmedabad, he hasn't been among the runs and lost his place in the ODI side. The likes of Shikhar Dhawan and M Vijay may not really be breathing down his neck to take on Australia but there is an increasing demand in India to frame a long-term strategy for the side with an eye on the team's overseas Test assignments that start with the tour of South Africa later in the year. Another run of failures is something Sehwag can ill-afford.
Dhawal Kulkarni was picked for the India squad for the Tests in New Zealand at the age of the 20 in 2008-09, but is yet to get an India cap. Four years on, he's finished a Ranji season on a high, taking 14 wickets in his previous two first-class games including nine in the final. Consistency in pace is what he had been striving for, said Kulkarni, and he even won plaudits from Sachin Tendulkar who'd said his performance in the second innings in the Ranji final was one of the better spells of fast bowling he'd seen in first-class cricket in recent times. Given the apparent vacuum in India's Test fast-bowling department, Kulkarni has a strong incentive to perform well in the Irani Cup.
Pitch and conditions
The track for the Irani Cup will be different from the one used in the Ranji Trophy final that finished in three days. Conditions were a little overcast on Tuesday morning and Harbhajan, who spoke to reporters at the end of the practice session, expected the pitch to help the seamers on the first couple of days. "It's a challenging wicket. It's not the kind of wicket where a batsman once set can never get out. To play cricket, this is the best wicket in India."
"It's an important game. If you look at the last series, we didn't play well against England in Test matches. You have got the best team from Mumbai and all the players in Rest of India are trying to make a comeback."
Suresh Raina is among those players
"The switch to the end of the season is good because the team that wins the Ranji Trophy is in a good flow and everyone at that time has had enough practice. Sometimes what happens is at the start of the season, a lot of guys would not have had practice due to the off season and monsoons."
Abhishek Nayar, leading the Mumbai senior team in first-class cricket for the first time
Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo