The Big Picture
The 14th edition of the NKP Salve Challenger Trophy in Cuttack begins on Thursday, bang in the middle of the India-Australia Test series, with defending champions India Blue taking on India Red. The tournament has been slotted between the second and third Tests, allowing the national selectors to focus on this tournament, which, owing to its positioning, serves more as a trial for the seven-ODI series against England in December. With India unchanged for the two remaining Tests, most of the players here will probably not be playing for any immediate spots in the Test team.
The domestic season officially began with the Irani Trophy last month but the Rest of India team that beat Delhi was a virtual Indian Test side. Unfortunately, the Challengers will be stripped of the same star value, with the senior Indian players using the break to rest and recharge. On the bright side, the three sides have players who have either served India with distinction in the past or have just made it to the Indian limited-overs squad. The IPL turned several unknown faces into household names and the public now have to opportunity to watch them in the 50-over format.
The Barabati Stadium will host the Challengers for the first time since its inception in 1994-95. The town hasn't hosted an international match since January last year, between India and the West Indies, so the day-night fixtures should draw crowds to the 33,000-capacity venue.
Yuvraj Singh, the tournament's biggest attraction, takes charge of India Blue. They will be without the services of legspinner Amit Mishra - who has been retained in India's Test squad after an impressive debut in Mohali - but his replacement, Chetanya Nanda, comes off a very creditable showing in the Irani Cup recently after taking eight wickets. The squad has four seamers, including Irfan Pathan and Ashok Dinda, the promising Bengal fast bowler who was recently part of the India A squad. The batting will rest primarily on Yuvraj and Virat Kohli, who recently made it to the Indian one-day squad.
Player to watch
Robin Uthappa: The scrutiny on Uthappa has only increased after very poor returns for India A in the recent A Team Tri-Series also featuring Australia and New Zealand. He managed 47 runs in five games and at times failed to build on starts. His opening partner in that series, Swapnil Asnodkar, too had a miserable time and it probably cost him his place in the Challengers. Uthappa, fortunately, has been given a second chance and one can expect him to go out there and attack himself in to form.
India Blue: 1 Yuvraj Singh (capt), 2 Ajinkya Rahane, 3 Robin Uthappa, 4 Virat Kohli, 5 Dinesh Karthik (wk), 6, Ravinder Singh, 7 Irfan Pathan, 8 Yogesh Takawale (wk), 9 Ashok Dinda, 10 Pradeep Sangwan, 11 Chetanya Nanda, 12 Arjun Yadav, 13 Siddarth Trivedi, 14 R Ashwin
Coach: Dav Whatmore
S Badrinath, possibly India's most talked-about fringe player, leads what is potentially the strongest team in the tournament. Including himself, as many as 11 players in the squad were part of the A team. Rohit Sharma and M Vijay will beef up the batting while Piyush Chawla - who took a five-wicket haul against the Australians recently - and the promising offspinner Mohnish Parmar will take over the spin duties. Their seam attack however looks a bit thin and a lot will rest on Vinay Kumar - the second-highest wicket-taker in the 2007-08 Ranji season - and Praveen Kumar.
Player to watch
L Balaji: The IPL showcased Balaji's return to competitive cricket at the big stage and he had his special moments, claiming the tournament's first hat-trick. Though his bowling was effective enough in containing his batsmen, he was not quite the same bowler who impressed one and all in Pakistan in 2003-04. He bowled off a shortened run-up and dropped several yards in pace, owing to stress fractures which threatened to finish off his career. Whether he's capable of handling the rigours of 50-over and four-day cricket remains to be seen and his true test starts now.
India Red: 1 S Badrinath (capt), 2 M Vijay, 3 F Fazal, 4 Manoj Tiwary, 5 Rohit Sharma, 6 Jaydev Shah, 7 Abhishek Nayar, 8 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 9 Praveen Kumar, 10 L Balaji, 11 Piyush Chawla, 12 Vinay Kumar, 13 Monish Parmar, 14 Parthiv Patel (wk).
Coach: Praveen Amre
Led by Mohammad Kaif, India Green are strong in batting with the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina, Yusuf Pathan and Cheteshwar Pujara, who's probably in the form of his life after smashing two triple-hundreds in a week in the Under-22 CK Nayudu Trophy. His form has drawn the attention of Kris Srikkanth, the new chairman of selectors, who said he will keep an eye on the batsman. The bowling has a decent look to it and the responsibility will be shared between RP Singh, Manpreet Gony and Pragyan Ojha.
Player to watch
Yusuf Pathan: Dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka, Yusuf made a strong statement in the A series, smashing 270 runs in five games, at a strike rate of 109. That included a blistering 148 at No. 7 against New Zealand in Chennai after a top-order wobble entertained thoughts of an early finish. He is essentially a batting allrounder and his abilities as a pinch-hitter came to the fore during the IPL when he scored the tournament's fastest fifty - off 21 balls.
India Green: 1 Mohammad Kaif (capt), 2 Shikhar Dhawan, 3 Naman Ojha (wk), 4 Suresh Raina, 5 Cheteshwar Pujara, 6 Saurabh Tiwary, 7 Yusuf Pathan, 8 Laxmi Ratan Shukla, 9 Manpreet Gony, 10 RP Singh, 11 Pragyan Ojha, 12 Rajat Bhatia, 13 Abhinav Kumar, 14 Pankaj Singh.
Coach: B Arun
The highest team total is 392 for 6 by India Seniors v India B in Chennai in 2001, while the lowest is 110 by India B v India A in Hyderabad in 1995.
Rahul Dravid is the highest run-getter with 1167 runs in 25 matches; Anil Kumble is the leading wicket-taker with 31 wickets in 21 games. Both aren't playing this edition.
Venkatapathi Raju's figures of 6 for 39 for India A v India Seniors are the best in Challenger history.
India Blue (formerly India Seniors) have the claimed the title outright eight times and shared the trophy once