Until two years ago, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy brought the curtain down on the domestic calendar. Players bemoaned the lack of context, considering the tournament was scheduled after the IPL auction. It gave unknown or less-known limited-overs specialists virtually no shop window to display their talents.
That could have been the case this time around too - the IPL auction was originally scheduled for February 5, by which time the tournament would have barely completed a week. But due to a lack of clarity over the BCCI's administrative structure in line with the Lodha Committee's recommendations, the auction is set to be pushed back by at least two weeks, which is a blessing in disguise for players hoping to impress talent scouts of various IPL franchises.
This year, the format has undergone a transformation. The latest edition, which gets underway across six cities - Chennai, Kolkata, Dharamsala, Nadaun, Jaipur and Vadodara - will start on January 29 as an inter-state tournament before becoming an inter-zonal competition along the lines of the old Deodhar Trophy. That means Uttar Pradesh, who beat Baroda in last year's final, cannot defend their crown this year. To explain in a nutshell, members of the UP squad can at best aim to be picked in Central Zone's squad in a bid to be a part of the winning team.
While the format has undergone a tweak to help selectors streamline talent, the objectives of players aren't likely to change. History is replete with players who have carved an identity on the back of impressive performances in the tournament - Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya the notable examples. For some such as Shikhar Dhawan, Ishant Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, who are not part of India's T20 squad, this is an opportunity to remain in the national reckoning.
Dhawan, who was recovering from a thumb injury, wasn't part of the Test squad against England and played the first two ODIs before being dropped for the third and final ODI. Ishant hasn't played ODIs for a year now, hasn't played a T20I since October 2013. Then there's Pawan Negi, whose career has spiralled downward since being picked up for INR 8.5 crore by Delhi Daredevils in last year's IPL auction. Both Ishant and Negi - who have been released by their respective franchises - will look to make an impression ahead of this year's auction.
For someone like the allrounder Vijay Shankar, who is captaining Tamil Nadu for the first time, it is an opportunity to prove himself as a leader. "Opportunities like the IPL will come on its own if we play these games well," he told ESPNcricinfo. "There is no pressure. It is a dream for me to lead a team like Tamil Nadu. I just want to enjoy the moment and hope we do well as a team."
Yet, it can be hard to remain insulated from the IPL auction, as Vijay said. "Being part of the IPL is huge. You can see the difference between domestic players who feature in IPL and those who don't. The whole thing towards the way you approach matches changes, as you learn a lot by even sitting in the dugout. You get to see the situations first-hand and learn from team-mates how they go about it."
Then there's Cheteshwar Pujara, who hasn't been part of the IPL for two seasons now. This is an opportunity to show he has a game that has transformed to meet the demands of the shortest format. Pujara, who has spoken of his determination to prove himself as an all-format cricketer, struck a century for Indian Oil in a corporate T20 tournament in Mumbai.
"I am looking forward to play in IPL," Pujara, who scored a hundred and two fifties in the tournament, said. "I have prepared well, especially when it comes to T20, I have more number of shots. I definitely want to make a mark in that particular format. I am very confident that I can play well in other formats of the game. If I play well in the Mushtaq Ali Trophy, surely there will be an opportunity.
"I just will have to keep playing other formats and keep scoring runs and probably I will have to wait for my opportunity. I am improving, playing more shots and playing with higher strike-rate. So probably the stamp as a Test specialist is just a tag, a perception that will change in time to come."
Rahane, who will turn up for Mumbai, has also struggled to nail down a place in India's limited-overs sides in recent times. He played just one of the three ODIs against England and was left out of the T20I squad.
The tournament will miss a few big names. Suryakumar Yadav, vice-captain of Kolkata Knight Riders, has been left out by Mumbai after an inconsistent season, while Robin Uthappa, the Karnataka opener, will miss out with a back injury. Suresh Raina is unavailable for the first week of the tournament as he will be away on national duty, while a majority of other India internationals in the mix will sit out in order to prepare for the one-off Test against Bangladesh.
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Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo