It seemed like such a nice linear progression. First, through December and the first week of January, the Ranji Trophy one-day league matches. Then, in the second week of January, the Challenger Trophy. And finally, the six one-dayers between India and England. So the top performers of the Ranji league could play the Challenger, and the men who shone there could fill the handful of available slots in the Indian squad. Sadly, the Indian board functions to some divine logic unfathomable to mere mortals; the Challenger squads were announced on the 23rd of December, with almost half the Ranji one-dayers yet to be played.
We shall be less lateral. The Ranji one-dayers first. These were held on a zonal basis, with the top team in each zone qualifying for the Wills Trophy, which they will contest with the Wills XI and the Board President's XI. How it works: one team gets a bye, the remaining six play quarter-finals, which leaves us with a symmetrically diminishable four teams. An admirable mathematical contortion.
North - Haryana vs Goliaths
Shock and horror: Haryana, who finished fourth in the Ranji league matches, actually won the zone in the one-day version of the game, ahead of favourites Punjab and Delhi. This despite their game against minnows Jammu and Kashmir being washed out (as all three first-round games were). Ajay Ratra was the guiding force behind the team, with some fine cameos down the order; he got his just rewards soon enough.
In one-day international cricket, openers tend to do disproportionately well compared to middle-order batsmen; the trend mirrored itself in North Zone, where Sandeep Sharma of Himachal Pradesh racked up scores of 92, 104, 49 and 104 in the four innings he played. Punjab experimented with the opening pair of Manish Sharma and RS Sodhi with great success; they added 204 against Services (Sharma made 102, Sodhi 125) and 194 against Haryana (Sharma 124, Sodhi 78), but sadly, couldn't take Punjab to the victory they seemed destined for, with the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Mongia and Pankaj Dharmani also playing for them.
Central - the blind spot
This is the most ignored zone, really; the heart of the country, the nerve centre of Indian politics, is not very prominent on the cricketing map of the country. So who would notice a thrilling contest in which three teams - Railways, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh - won an equal number of games, and Railways only qualified on the basis of bonus points? Or the incredible game between Railways and UP, in which Jai P Yadav scored 90 as Railways made 263, and Jyoti P Yadav hit up 110, as UP made 267, reaching the target in the 49th over.
Central's finest player, Mohammad Kaif of UP, lurks near the periphery of the Indian team. He got one century and two fifties in the tournament and carried his good form through to the Challenger Trophy. Long considered a potential Test player, he showed felicity in the shorter version of the game as well, running well between the wickets, rotating the strike superbly and demonstrating that he has all the strokes in the book. The textbook. Keep an eye on this man.
One man with no eyes on him is Gagan Khoda, Rajasthan's long-suffering opener. He made three fifties and a 46 in his four innings, but in all of them failed to better the 89 he made in his second (and last) one-day international, almost four years ago, after which he was brutally discarded. He's only 27 and his best years are surely ahead of him. Chances are, he'll be playing them for Rajasthan, and not India. Sad, but then, that's Central Zone for you.
East - Assam insurgency
Yawn, here we go again, you think. Weak, weak zone, won by either Bengal or Orissa, right? Wrong. Assam did a Haryana, and shocked both the zonal bullies before shocking themselves and losing to Bihar. They qualified from this zone nevertheless, largely due to the exploits of wicketkeeper-batsman Syed Zakaria Zuffri. The East Zone matches finished before the Challenger teams were picked, so Zuffri found himself selected for India B as second wicketkeeper. Quite surreal. Needless to say, Zuffri didn't get a game there.
The dominant batsman of the zone was a former Assam player who now plays for Bihar: Tariq-ur-Rehman, who made one century and two fifties. Sanjay Raul made three fifties for Orissa, to go with some consistent performances in the longer version of the game. But the quality of the opposition bowling was dubious; imagine Sachin Tendulkar unleashed on Tripura - hmm... that sure would be some sight, if he stayed awake long enough.
South - Karnataka strike back
Karnataka went into this tournament with a point to prove. They had come fourth in the Ranji Trophy league stages, failing to make it to the knock-out stages of the tournament. But they made amends in the shorter version of the game, qualifying comfortably.
Jagadeesh Arunkumar led the way for them, with fine centuries in his first two games. 27 years old, Arunkumar has done the grind, playing for both India Under-19s - when he was under 19 - and India A, as well as for the Board President's XI against visiting sides. He was a contender for the Test opening slot once, but first S Ramesh and then SS Das beat him to it, after which he slipped into temporary oblivion; with the opening slot in the Test side by no means settled, he must consider himself still in the frame. Pity the Challenger Trophy teams were selected before these matches took place. D Vinay Kumar of Hyderabad hit up two hundreds and was the other outstanding performer of the league. The man has a maniacal batting average of 55.33 in List A limited overs, but it was a far less talented colleague of his who got selected for the Challenger Trophy. More on that later in this article.
West - Mumbai renaissance
Mumbai exploded off the blocks and blew everybody away, winning all their matches with consummate ease. Vinod Kambli led the way with two centuries; his 149 against Baroda, off 137 deliveries, was particularly spectacular. Amol Mazumdar, Robin Morris and Wasim Jaffer were consistent, making for a batting order that, even without Sachin Tendulkar, looked formidable.
Saurashtra had a lousy time of it, in a collective sense; individually though, there were some sparkling performances. Sitanshu Kotak and Sujith Somasunder hit up some good knocks, but the star of the show was 23 year-old Altaf Merchant, who crossed the century mark twice in four matches. He can give the ball a pretty mean thwack; and the selectors gave him one by not considering him for the Challenger Trophy. That's right, cut 'em down in their prime.
Hrishikesh Kanitkar of Maharashtra quietly made a couple of hundreds, but subsequent failure in the Challenger Trophy (9 and 47 in his two innings) left him, yet again, one agonising step short of the national squad. Kanitkar has been one of the most consistent players in domestic cricket in recent years (first class average: 55), but was hung out to dry after India's tour to Australia two years ago. Many unwary souls perished on that trip; while Debang Gandhi had his defects exposed at the highest level, the likes of Kanitkar and Vijay Bhardwaj were perhaps just unlucky to make their debuts in such gruelling circumstances, when better men like Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly were found wanting. Dravid and Ganguly had the back-history to carry them through; the younger men did not and, scarred by the experience, had to go back and start from scratch.
Trapped in the dustbin
In the sort of circumstances spoken of above, one wonders whether players once discarded have a chance of making it back. If one is dropped for clear lack of ability, that's fair enough. But many players in the last decade - Salil Ankola, Atul Wassan, Dodda Ganesh, Wasim Jaffer - have played for India too early in their careers, and having been dropped once for not being good enough, have found that tag stuck on them even after maturing and reaching their peaks (as Jaffer seems to be doing now). Once they have been classified as unfit for international cricket, are the selectors open to trying them out again?
The man who must agonise over this question most often is Vinod Kambli. He has a Test batting average of 54 and a first-class average of 65; at one time, it seemed he would outshadow his schoolmate (doppelganger?) Sachin Tendulkar, with an average of 113 after his seventh Test. This fell to 70 by his 13th Test, and went into free-fall after the West Indies seemed to have sorted him out in '94-95. Sure, he had trouble against the short, rising ball, but nothing that couldn't be sorted out, and not remotely as much as Ganguly's. But when Kambli was eventually dropped from the Indian side, the buzz was that it was as much for his behavioural excesses as for cricketing reasons.
Right, so he was young and couldn't cope with success and went overboard. If careers were ended elsewhere for that sort of thing, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne would not be making history, they'd be history. Kambli's explosive hundred for Mumbai against the visiting England team in November was a sight to behold; and he is surely far more talented than many men who hang around the periphery of the Indian team, like Dinesh Mongia and Jacob Martin, worthy as those gentlemen may be. At least in a one-day context, Kambli should have been picked for the Challenger Trophy, and thenceforth on merit. F Scott Fitzgerald once spoke of how there were 'no second acts in American lives'. None in Vinod Kambli's either, it seems.
Challenger: some cloud, much silver
The cricket itself was mostly bland; there were no memorable struggles to remember, and the quality of the bowling diluted the value of some of the knocks. India A won as much due to their own ability as the ineptitude of the opposition. Also, there were some shocking selectorial decisions made, none more so than the inclusion of Arjun Yadav in India B.
Yadav, who plays for Hyderabad, was ostensibly picked as an allrounder. A justified tag, as he is equally horrid with both bat and ball. His List A one-dayers batting average in eight matches is a hefty nine; he took five wickets in those games. His first class batting average is 39, his recent form has been mediocre. So what possible reason could there be for picking him? Surely not that he is the son of South Zone selector Shivlal Yadav?
To add injury to injustice, he was sent in to bat at No. 6 in India B's match against India A, ahead of far more accomplished batsmen like Devendra Bundela and Pankaj Dharmani, two domestic stalwarts for whom it was the last chance to shine in the tournament. Yadav played a fine cameo of two runs, and topped the batting averages for his team - from the bottom. Such nepotism epitomises the very worst of Indian cricket and is terribly unfair on other players.
Enough of cloudy politics, back to cricket, where the silver linings lay. Two very significant ones, in fact.
First, the return of Hemang Badani. An elegant left-hander with a temperament that inspired VVS Laxman to compare him with Michael Bevan, Badani has now topped the Challenger averages two years in a row. He made two fifties and a 41, batting under pressure each time; it's good to see him back in the Indian side - India will be well served if this stint of his lasts a decade.
And then, Turbanator II. Sarandeep Singh was outstanding in this tournament, especially in the match against India B (a virtual semi-final) in which he took a five-for. He flighted the ball beautifully, turned it both ways, and completely befuddled the batsmen. Will he be Stuart MacGill to Bhajji's Shane Warne, or will they be Pras and Venkat? One dearly hopes they follow the Indian precedent.
Who'll open? Me, sir!
Some of the final matches of the Ranji league went unreported last month, as they hadn't been played at the time of writing. Well, they've been played now, and all the standings in last month's tables remain intact, except for Assam overtaking Bihar to qualify from East Zone. Any significant performances? Well, yes.
Sanjay Raul was outstanding for Orissa, making 162 against Assam and then, barely a week later, a double hundred against Bengal; SS Das, doing domestic duty, made 253 in the latter match. Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Abhijit Kale made hundreds in West Zone, while Venugopal Rao, AP's most consistent batsman, made an excellent 146 against Hyderabad.
All eyes, however, were on the three men fighting for the right to open for India, as soon as there's a vacancy. S Ramesh of Tamil Nadu signalled a return to form with a century against Kerala, and Wasim Jaffer made 139 against Saurashtra, but the star of the month was Connor Williams, hitting up 137 and 99 for Baroda against Maharashtra. Keep an eye on this little battle; augurs well for Indian cricket.
Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He writes the blog India Uncut. @amitvarma