Little to play for really

If this Challenger Series held the public's imagination at any stage, it certainly didn't beyond 7pm on Tuesday, when the tournament ended for Sourav Ganguly. The one thing that the public was keen to see - if they could manage to tune in to Neo Sports, the newly launched television channel that is broadcasting this series - was how Ganguly would bat. And if he did not last long enough during his 24 against India Blue, it was even more disappointing today in his game against the Reds.

Only 3 runs from 9 balls before an angled bat outside off redirected the ball back onto the stumps via the inside edge, and suddenly the question surrounding Ganguly changed slightly. It was now not so much whether he could make it back to the Indian team, but whether he still deserved a place in the Rest of India team that would take on Uttar Pradesh in the Zal Irani Trophy match at Nagpur, starting October 9.

The raison d'etre of the Challenger Series is the selection of teams for the forthcoming season. It's meant to be the season opener that gives young cricketers the chance to catch the eye of the selectors. But this year, with the ICC Champions Trophy being the tournament coming up straight after, and the Indian team for the event being picked well in advance, as per the ICC guidelines, there was really little to play for, at least for the vast majority of cricketers turning out here.

And, oddly enough, it was those to whom this tournament should have mattered the least, who made the most of it. Gautam Gambhir is out of the Indian team now, but he is no stranger to scoring in domestic cricket. The problem is that the quality of bowlers, and their discipline, is so superior in international cricket, that Gambhir's obvious weaknesses are exploited, and his strengths and scoring areas curtailed. That he scored 110 and 74 is really not going to convince either the team management or the selectors that he should be given another serious go.

Y Venugopala Rao is another of those journeymen. Though he batted well, and led imaginatively, he isn't quite going to crash his way back into the scheme of things. Similarly, the two wicketkeepers - Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik - have little or no chance of getting ahead of Mahendra Singh Dhoni with the big gloves. Neither is as destructive a batsman, though both are well above average, and Dhoni's keeping has come along well enough to obviate the need for someone whose glovework is perfect at the cost of a batting talent.

Ashish Nehra and Lakshmipathy Balaji, the other comeback merchants, were good in patches, but unconvincing overall. The young ones about - Tanmay Srivastava and Ravindra Jadeja - barely had the time or space to express themselves as they might. Rohit Sharma, another young man who is being spoken of highly, picked up a pretty 33 and a sensible 24, but really you have to more than that.

There will be more than one cricketer wondering what exactly he was doing at the event. Take Wasim Jaffer, who has batted so well for India in Tests that he has cemented a place as an opener. That he is unsuited for the one-day game, especially considering the rate at which teams are scoring these days, is something even he will not protest too loudly. His innings of 12 and 23 only underscored his shortcomings.

But it was Suresh Raina that the series has been an unmitigated disaster. Already, plenty of questions are being asked about Raina, who seems comfortable getting to 20, but seldom goes further. The team management has abundant faith in him but the public's patience won't quite match this. A couple of good scores in the Challenger Series would have gone a long way in sending the signal that he should be persisted with. But 0 against India Blue, where he gifted his wicket away, a cut shot finding extra-cover, and 1 against India Red, when a pull shot landed in square-leg's lap, have given the Raina sceptics a lot of fuel. If potential and performance were the only criterion for selection - runs and wickets notwithstanding - tournaments like this wouldn't exist in the first place.