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Duleep Trophy seeks relevance and revival with pink ball

Cheteshwar Pujara is one of the two players from India's current Test squad who will play in the Duleep Trophy BCCI

Once used as a platform to reinvigorate hopes of national selection or pitch for higher honours, the Duleep Trophy has gradually steeped towards insignificance. The 2013-14 final was washed out with just a handful of overs bowled because of incessant rain and a wet outfield. Allotting Kochi the match during the peak monsoon season spoke of the tournament's irrelevance, one that had become synonymous over time because national players were either unavailable or simply did not have an incentive to play in a busy cricket calendar.

Now, ahead of the tournament's return to India' domestic calendar following a year's break, owing to India's busy T20 season, ESPNcricinfo looks at the talking points that could add significance to the 2016 edition to be played in Greater Noida from August 23 to September 14.

Pink ball Test

The tournament has been revived by trialling the pink ball under lights before hosting a day-night Test. While the latest innovation has been ruled out for the home series against New Zealand, the success of this season's Duleep Trophy could be a significant step towards hosting India's inaugural pink ball Test in the near future.

Pitches

Though cricket in India is usually played with the SG ball, the Duleep Trophy will be played with a pink Kookaburra, which requires a specific set of conditions to last. The pitch for the inaugural day-night Test between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide last year had to have a more-than-normal coating of grass to help delay the wear and tear of the ball, and it resulted in exaggerated lateral movement. Another concern with hosting a floodlit match, especially in India, is dew. These two factors will be closely monitored.

However, maintaining a stipulated amount of green on the surface will also bring with it the prospect of losing its home advantage, which could be as big a challenge for the Indian team as any. Therefore, the tournament could provide a marker on how surfaces of varying degree behave with the pink ball under lights.

Vote of top players

The proposal to play the tournament with the pink ball was ratified mainly because it was understood in June that the country's top cricketers would be available for the entire duration of the tournament. It was also to act as preparation for the upcoming record 13 Tests at home, making it India's longest home season. The late addition of the two Twenty20s against West Indies in Florida on August 27 and 28 effectively rules out that possibility.

Although Virat Kohli has publicly backed the idea to play day-night Tests, he has never featured in a match involving the pink ball. Only two members of India's squad of 17 in the West Indies - M Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara - will play in the Duleep Trophy. Shardul Thakur, who is also in the Test squad, is set to fly out to Australia to join the 'A' team as a replacement for Barinder Sran.

Challenger-style format

The tournament itself has undergone a transformation, with the inter-zonal format, the squads for which were named by a selection committee nominated for the respective zones, replaced by three teams picked by the national selectors. In 2002-03, the BCCI fielded five teams - three squads selected from performers in the elite division of the Ranji Trophy and two from the plate division. A season's experiment later, the tournament went back to the zonal format, with the addition of a foreign team to make it a six-team event. After doing away with the overseas team's participation in 2008-09, the format was once again changed from a league-cum-final arrangement to a knockout structure, as was the format when the tournament was conceptualised in 1961-62.

Players to watch out for

Suresh Raina: A certainty in India's limited-overs squad for a majority of the last four years, Raina suddenly finds himself at the crossroads. Troubles with the short ball and 68 runs in five innings, including two ducks, during the home ODIs against South Africa led to his axe from the format. An underwhelming World T20 campaign in March-April led to his ouster from the shortest format too. Since 2015, his T20I average and strike rate of 21.33 and 124.27 respectively are significantly lower than his career numbers. Therefore, Raina's distance than proximity to the Indian squad at the moment, after being left out of the USA-bound T20I squad, is intriguing. As captain, his move will be closely watched too.

Kuldeep Yadav: Ten first-class games across two seasons may not trigger excitement, but Kuldeep belongs to a rare breed of left-arm wristspinners. He has the ability to impart revs and extract turn from docile surfaces, like he did during the Syed Mustaq Ali T20s earlier this year. In the IPL too, with their season on the line, Kolkata Knight Riders picked him over Piyush Chawla, and he delivered. The success of Lakshan Sandakan on turning tracks at home against Australia has re-emphasised the values of a left-arm wristspinner. Particularly interesting to watch will be his approach on surfaces that are likely to be grassy for the longevity of the pink ball.

Cheteshwar Pujara and Gautam Gambhir: Pujara finds himself in a middle-order maze, after being unable to capitalise on a string of starts. With Kohli emphasising often on a "horses-for-courses" approach, big runs in the Duleep Trophy could reinforce Pujara's credentials in India's top order. Gautam Gambhir, meanwhile, finds himself in a tougher position, having to compete with not two but three specialist openers in Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul, all of whom are in the midst of a merry-go-round like situation. Therefore, the Delhi captain, who has tweaked his stance and trigger movements after working closely with Justin Langer in Western Australia last year, has his task cut out.