On a hot and humid Monday afternoon, 22 men, on the fringe of the national side, sweated it out during a gruelling practice session at the NPR College Ground in Natham, Dindigul. All 22 cricketers, keen on signing off the first domestic tournament of the 2018-19 season — the 57th Duleep Trophy — on a high.

Abhinav Mukund, leading India Red, will be missing three key men — Abhimanyu Mithun, who is out with an ankle injury, and Shahbaz Nadeem and Rajneesh Gurbani who are away on India ‘A’ duties. Ishan Kishan and Prasidh Krishna have been roped in as replacements.

Faiz Fazal’s India Blue, on the other hand, will be bolstered by the return of Deepak Hooda. It will, however, miss the services of Akshay Wakhare, who is nursing a shoulder niggle.

The focus will be on Blues’ Dhruv Shorey, who is the tournament’s highest run-getter, skipper Fazal, Reds’ Mukund, Baba Aparajith, Kishan and Sanjay Ramaswamy with the bat as they would love to pick up some runs under their belt ahead of the grinding season.

With the ball, out of favour Indian pacemen, Dhawal Kulkarni, Jaydev Unadkat, Basil Thampi (all India Blue) and Parvez Rasool (India Red) would be hoping to grab the selectors' attention.

Shorey has amassed 275 runs at an average of 68.75 while Sanjay Ramaswamy has 238 runs at 79.33. Aparajith is third in the run-getters list with 191 runs at 63.66. Among the bowlers, India Blue left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar has taken 14 wickets at an average 18.78.

Mukund was bullish of an excellent performance after an intense training session on the eve of the match. “The conditions are very hot. This wicket isn’t new for us. We played our last match on the same wicket and we know how it would behave. The spinners aren’t getting as much assistance as they would love to, but the rough created by the paceman is helping them. There is a little grass on the surface but that should be taken care of and we are confident of a good show,” the southpaw said.

India Red coach, Divakar Vasu, echoed his skippers’ views. “The first innings will hold the key. The pitch looks flat and we should have spinners come into play as the game goes on,” he added.

Mukund's counterpart Fazal exuded confidence. “We have grown from strength to strength in the tournament. This is the start of the domestic season and doing well here will give everyone the confidence ahead of the Vijay Hazare and Ranji Trophy. Many of us have played in many finals earlier and we hope to do the right things,” the Vidarbha opener said.

It's a low scoring ground and teams batting first don't usually score in excess of 300. With the wicket getting drier, the spinners too come into play and whoever wins the toss would want to bat first and dominate the game from the start.