Hopefuls target the big stage
The Duleep Trophy has long been the setting for famous turnarounds in a player's fortune - Sourav Ganguly's road back to the national team started with an emphatic century in 2005 and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi's 200 in 1967, after resigning as India captain, had his critics imploring him to remain leader of the national side. It remains so this season with a hectic year of cricket ahead and an Indian team in some transition.
The tournament opener at the Chinnaswamy Stadium has several fringe players hoping for a similar upturn, chief among those is South Zone's swing bowler Sreesanth. For a few Test regulars it is an opportunity to gain match practice ahead of the New Zealand visit, but VVS Laxman, the South captain, stressed he was focused on winning the tournament and was not treating the match as a warm-up for New Zealand.
Having struggled with injuries following last year's IPL, Sreesanth made a huge impact in his only first-class game since, taking seven wickets for Kerala. Anyone with his pace and his outswinger would have walked into an Indian side of the 1990s in spite of the long lay-off, but the national fast-bowling stocks have rarely been in better health, making his comeback a far tougher proposition.
To complicate matters for Sreesanth, the tournament is now played in a knockout format, with the winner of this match progressing to the semi-finals. That means he could have only one chance to convince the national selectors of his form and fitness ahead of the New Zealand tour next month.
Another bowler who has slipped down the pecking order is legspinner Piyush Chawla, a Test debutant at 17, three years ago. He missed out on the squad for the one-dayers against Sri Lanka despite Harbhajan Singh's absence. He's had a moderate first-class season - taking 27 wickets at 35, and made some handy runs - but an eye-catching performance against the formidable South batting, including VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, could provide just the boost he needs.
Tamil Nadu batsman S Badrinath, on the bench for the recent home Tests against England, is another one who needs to perform. His ticket to New Zealand is not yet confirmed, with Rohit Sharma - who made twin centuries in the Ranji Trophy final - leading a bunch of youngsters pushing to take his place. His South team-mate Robin Uthappa has dropped off the national radar since the CB Series in Australia early last year. He has staked his claim though by being Karnataka's stand-out batsman, making three centuries in the Ranji Trophy to carry an inexperienced batting order.
A little lower in the race for a national berth is L Balaji, who has had a dazzling season (36 wickets at 17.50) after a long battle with a back injury. A good Duleep Trophy will help him climb another rung on the ladder to the top.
With Balaji and Sreesanth leading the attack, and an imposing batting line-up, South start as favourites, their only weakness being an innocuous spin department. Central's worry is not their slow bowling, which includes Chawla and Murali Kartik, but their batting. Their recognised batsmen have played only 13 Tests, compared to South's 254.
The pitch is expected to favour the batsmen, on the slower side with the bounce getting lower as the match progresses.
South Zone squad: VVS Laxman (capt), S Badrinath, Abhinav Mukund, Robin Uthappa, Rahul Dravid, Arjun Yadav, Dinesh Karthik (wk), R Ashwin, Shadab Jakati, L Balaji, Sreesanth, R Vinay Kumar, Saurabh Bandekar, M Suresh, Anoop Pai.
Central Zone squad: Mohammad Kaif (capt), Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Anureet Singh, Robin Bist, Piyush Chawla, Faiz Fazal, Yere Goud, Murali Kartik, Naman Ojha (wk), Pankaj Singh, Parvinder Singh, Jalaj Saxena, Shivakant Shukla, Tanmay Srivastava.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo