India's dismal performance in the Champions Trophy has loosened the grip of some of the regulars on their berths in the national team. The Challenger Trophy, which begins in Nagpur on Thursday in the shadow of the hype and hoopla surrounding the inaugural Champions League Twenty20, provides the perfect stage for fringe players to make their case. Despite the low profile of the Challengers, there's plenty at stake as an eye-catching performance in it could catapult hopefuls into the national team for India's next assignment, the seven-ODI series against Australia starting later this month.
Besides shifting the spotlight off Nagpur, the Champions League also dilutes the strength of the player pool in the Challengers, as the likes of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are missing. Also, some perhaps on the verge of being dropped (RP Singh and Dinesh Karthik) and those eyeing a comeback (Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary, Robin Uthappa, Pragyan Ojha) are away playing in the Twenty20 tournament. Some of the sheen is also off due to the absence of the big stars like Sachin Tendulkar (resting), Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan (both injured).
This is the 15th edition of the Challenger Trophy, and is a four-day event, kicking off with a round-robin among the three teams, the top two of whom will face off in the final on Sunday.
They have the strongest batting unit in the competition: captain MS Dhoni has domestic giant Wasim Jaffer, aggressive wicketkeeper-batsman Naman Ojha, an in-form Abhinav Mukund and a pair of allrounders, Yusuf Pathan and Abhishek Nayar, to back him up. The fast bowling will be spearheaded by Sreesanth, with two players who made an impact in the IPL, Rajasthan's Sidharth Trivedi and Bengal's Ashok Dinda, to provide support.
Players to watch After muscling his way into the one-day side on the back of some match-turning efforts in the IPL, Yusuf Pathan's form has nosedived over the past few months. He needs to perform here or risks losing his place to India Blue team-mate Abhishek Nayar, who hasn't had enough of a chance yet to show off his skills on the international stage. Also, Sreesanth, fresh from being fined 60% of his Irani Cup fee for a verbal tiff with Dhawal Kulkarni, will look to hit the headlines for the right reasons.
Captained by perennial hopeful S Badrinath, this is a side with plenty of bowling firepower. Ishant Sharma will attempt to recapture the pace and form of 2008, and he will have Munaf Patel and the promising Uttar Pradesh seamer Sudeep Tyagi sharing fast-bowling duties. The withdrawal of Yuvraj Singh, though, makes the batting suspect, putting a lot of responsibility on the Tamil Nadu duo of Badrinath and M Vijay.
Players to watch The uncertainty over the availability of Zaheer Khan for the Australia series, combined with the inept displays from the fast bowlers in both the Compaq Cup and the Champions Trophy, means virtually none of the quicks can be sure of their place in the national side. After his five-wicket haul in the Irani Cup, Munaf Patel's comeback bid will gather steam if he is among the wickets in Nagpur. Ravindra Jadeja will also enter the fight for the allrounder's spot if he builds on the assured showing in the Irani Cup.
This young side will be led by Suresh Raina, and has two fast bowlers, L Balaji and Dhawal Kulkarni, who dropped off the selectors' radar after the tour of New Zealand early this year. The batting is their stronger suit, though, with the line-up including Raina, the prolific Ajinkya Rahane, Parthiv Patel, and two members of the 2008 Under-19 World Cup-winning squad, Saurabh Tiwary (seven half-centuries in 12 List A innings) and Tanmay Srivastava.
Players to watch A glut of runs in 2008-09 has pushed Ajinkya Rahane up the ladder towards a national spot. This is his third consecutive Challenger Trophy, and a strong showing here could help him make the final leap to the big stage.