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Feature

SMA Trophy: Future IPL stars, T20I team candidates get together for India's domestic T20 competition

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
03-Nov-2021
Can T Natarajan and Vijay Shankar help Tamil Nadu defend their T20 title?  •  BCCI/IPL

Can T Natarajan and Vijay Shankar help Tamil Nadu defend their T20 title?  •  BCCI/IPL

Across India, it's the festive season, but for thousands of domestic male cricketers, it's time to play now. It's a welcome change for those who've had to cope with job losses and dwindling finances, apart from lack of match time. While payments for the cricket that didn't happen in 2020-21 continues to remain in limbo, just being able to go back onto the field will be a welcome distraction. On Thursday, 38 teams will begin their quest for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, the senior men's domestic T20 competition. Let's look at what is at stake.

Opportunity to impress ahead of IPL auction


As always, the SMA Trophy helps IPL franchises handpick the best domestic Indian talent. The addition of two new teams throws open the possibility of a wider pool of Indian players getting a look-in, and several franchises have already set base at the six venues across the country.
Ask Chetan Sakariya. The Saurashtra left-arm seamer impressed in 2019-20, only to be picked as a net bowler by Royal Challengers Bangalore for IPL 2020. Come 2022, he could go into the auction as a capped India player if Rajasthan Royals don't retain him.
Venkatesh Iyer and Rajat Patidar were on the radar of a few talent scouts at this tournament last year. Both came up with eye-catching performances that went a long way in their maiden IPL deals with Kolkata Knight Riders and RCB this year. Iyer's rise has been so swift that he's now being talked of as an India contender.
Nagaland's teenaged legspinner Khrievitso Kense had an impressive SMA trophy in 2020-21, which earned him trials with the Royals and Mumbai Indians. While he didn't attract bids at the auction, it underlines how one or two impact performances could open opportunities.

Search for allrounders


It's not just the talent scouts who will have the eyes and ears on the action. The national selectors, too, will be keenly following the tournament, considering the next T20 World Cup in Australia is less than a year away. There's also a series of T20Is at home against New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and West Indies, apart from an away series in South Africa. This could make it a key tournament, especially for allrounders in the aftermath of the Hardik Pandya injury that has left India off balance.
Who are India's possible options? Vijay Shankar, Tamil Nadu's captain, is trying to revive his career after a brief fling with team India in 2019. Then there is Mumbai's Shivam Dube, whose stocks have plummeted as quickly as they rose.
Among other contenders who have made significant ground lately are Haryana's Harshal Patel, who took the most IPL 2021 wickets, and Delhi's Lalit Yadav, an offspinning allrounder.
Then there are a few others like Iyer himself, who also bowls handy medium pace in addition to his batting firepower upfront, Baroda's Krunal Pandya, Karnataka's J Suchith and Shreyas Gopal, and Jharkhand's Anukul Roy, all spin-bowling allrounders. The tournament could throw up several names to join this queue.

Star players in action


Ajinkya Rahane and Prithvi Shaw, whose power play batting was impressive for Delhi Capitals, are part of a Mumbai contingent trying to make amends for their horror 2020-21 season, where they managed just one win in five games.
Mayank Agarwal will turn up for Karnataka after an impressive IPL for Punjab Kings, where he made 441 runs in 12 games at a strike rate of 140. Ruturaj Gaikwad has been elevated to Maharashtra captaincy after playing a starring role in Chennai Super Kings' IPL title run last month, with an orange cap performance of 635 runs at a strike rate of 137, while Sanju Samson will want to turn in a solid season for Kerala to boost his retention chances at Royals.
For Yuzvendra Chahal, it's an opportunity to prove what India may have missed at the T20 World Cup when he turns up for Haryana. He comes in with a red-hot IPL form at the back end for Royal Challengers. Umesh Yadav and Wriddhiman Saha will turn up for Vidarbha and Bengal respectively.

Tamil Nadu, the favourites again?


Last year, they made an unbeaten run to the final where they beat Baroda without top players like R Ashwin, M Vijay, Natarajan, Washington Sundar, Sandeep Warrier and Varun Chakravarthy. There's no reason why they can't go all the way this time too.
Having made back-to-back finals, the defending champions will have a new captain in Shankar, after Dinesh Karthik opted out. They're among the few teams to have had solid preparation, having finished the Tamil Nadu Premier League, a tournament that has thrown up several promising names like young batter Sai Sudharsan. The side boasts of experienced players like Shahrukh Khan, M Ashwin, N Jagadeesan, Sandeep Warrier and T Natarajan, who add depth.

Format


There are six groups in all. Five elite groups comprise six teams each while the Plate Group consists of eight teams. The top team from each of the six groups gets a direct entry into the quarterfinals. The second-placed teams from each of the groups will compete in three pre-quarterfinals. The three winners from these games will progress to the final eight.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo