Duleep Trophy, the orphan-child of Indian domestic cricket, returned after a three-year exile and a four-season long dalliance with a format that saw contrived identities of India ‘Red’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Green’ foisted on players competing in traditional whites.
The tournament’s homecoming in the inter-zonal format after a hiatus of eight years, however, was hardly met with a red carpet. There was no live telecast for the quarterfinals and semifinals, and spectators weren’t allowed, at least officially.
Once considered a national selection trial for the Test team, the Duleep Trophy was deprived of a host of budding stars who were busy playing for India ‘A’ against New Zealand ‘A’.
Sarfaraz Khan, the top run-getter of the preceding season of the Ranji Trophy, was made available only for the final, which Prithvi Shaw missed after his Player-of-the-Match performance in the semifinal. The services of Rajat Patidar, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Shardul Thakur, among others, were deemed of better use in the red-ball and white-ball legs of the ‘A’ series.
West Zone clinched a recording-extending 19th title amid muted celebrations at the quaint SNR College Cricket Ground in Coimbatore. Spectators were allowed for the summit clash, but with South Zone facing a mountain too steep on the final day, the few plastic chairs kept under the hastily-erected shamianas at one end of the straight boundary were empty.
The exuberance of youth in the West Zone side somewhat made up for the subdued post-match revelry even as 20-year-old Yashasvi Jaiswal, smarting a reprimand from captain Ajinkya Rahane, was being counselled by match referee Narayanankutty Vengalil on the sidelines.
Rahane, in an unprecedented show of exemplary leadership, ordered Jaiswal off the field for seven overs on the final day for his poor on-field behaviour. The veteran warned Jaiswal sternly after the latter exchanged words with batter T. Ravi Teja and R. Sai Kishore. The exchange of words prompted the umpires to intervene. When Jaiswal didn’t relent, Rahane gave him the marching orders.
“You have to follow the rules, and respect the game and the opponents and the umpires. That is the way I have always played my cricket and will continue to play,” Rahane said, explaining the decision.
His ward had learnt a lesson in discipline. “Whatever Ajju- bhai says I take that seriously and try to follow it,” Jaiswal said after being adjudged Player-of-the-Match in the final. After all, the elegant southpaw had reaped the benefits of the counsel of experience earlier.
Jaiswal (265, 323b, 30x4, 4x6) stamped his class and turned the match on its head on the third day, flattening South Zone’s slender 57-run first-innings advantage and widening the gulf between the sides by scoring at a fast clip.
“I made double-hundreds in two games because of the way Ajju-bhai told me to carry on after I reached hundred and to make it count. He was guiding me like an elder brother,” Jaiswal said.
When Sarfaraz (127 n.o., 178b, 11x4, 2x6) took over on the following day, South Zone was up against the wall. Het Patel (51 n.o., 61b, 7x4, 1x6) toyed with the bowlers and built on his first-innings rescue act of 98 before Rahane declared. Relief for the fielders after the toil of 128 overs gave way to agony for the batters as the heat of the West Zone pace attack turned on them in a chase of 529.
Domestic stalwart Jaydev Unadkat (six for 80 in the match) led the way with accuracy and consistency, his probing angles wide of the crease from around the stumps leaving India players Mayank Agarwal and Manish Pandey in a fix.
Unadkat, the Player of the Series, finished the tournament with 13 wickets in three matches at an average of 14.07.
His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. National selector Sunil Joshi had a long conversation with the 30-year-old after his exploits on the fourth day. Chairman of selectors Chetan Sharma was in attendance at the same venue when West Zone had thumped Central Zone by 279 runs in the semifinal.
Barring Baba Indrajith’s (118, 125b, 14x4) effortless first-innings hundred and Rohan Kunnummal’s (93, 100b, 14x4, 1x6) breezy knock in the second, there was little to rejoice for South Zone.
After being positioned comfortably at 236 for four on the second day in reply to West Zone’s 270, Hanuma Vihari would have fancied his team’s chances. But the lack of firepower in the pace department, an insipid show by the spinners and missed opportunities on the field in the second innings didn’t help South Zone, which was coming off a 645-run drubbing of North Zone in the semifinal.
Egos had been humbled, lessons had been learnt, and a former India Test captain, fighting for form and survival, had led his team to victory. The Duleep Trophy, involving some of the top players from different States, had reclaimed a slice of its pride and prestige.
“The beauty is, today I can talk with Ajinkya [Rahane] sir, I can talk with Prithvi [Shaw]. Anyone can come and talk to me. We share our experiences. That is the beauty of this trophy. Everyone comes from a different place, has their own journey and we can learn from each other,” Central Zone’s Himanshu Mantri said, summing up the significance of the tournament.
The frenzy of white-ball cricket and coloured clothing is up next, with the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and the Vijay Hazare Trophy slated to be held in the next couple of months.
The red-ball journeymen, meanwhile, eagerly await the return of the Ranji Trophy.