Mushtaq Ali Trophy: Mumbai, Kerala to battle in Super League

With the Asia Cup T20, World T20 and the IPL all set to be held over the next few months, the Super League couldn’t have been conducted at a better juncture. The eight teams to contest the upcoming matches are Delhi, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, Kerala, Vidarbha and Baroda.

Hardik Pandya is the sixth highest run-getter in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy so far, having scored 234 runs in six matches.   -  Vivek Bendre

In sport, timing is everything. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) deserves credit as far as the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy is concerned. Hitherto known as the deprived and forgotten sibling of the Indian Premier League, the inter-state Twenty20 tournament has finally found its prominence due to a tweak in format and scheduling.

Those mundane zonal affairs are a thing of the past. The preliminary round (27 teams divided into four highly-competitive groups) has thrown up eight challengers for the business end of the tournament. The Super League will kick-off on Friday, giving both the players and those watching them a renewed sense of purpose and perspective.

With the Asia Cup T20, World T20 and the IPL all set to be held over the next few months, the Super League couldn’t have been conducted at a better juncture. The IPL auctions are on February 6, and don’t be surprised if you spot a John Wright at the Wankhede or another veteran talent spotter at the Sharad Pawar Cricket Academy.

Baroda, one of the most successful T20 teams in the country, will field the same bunch of players from the group phase. Led by a rejuvenated Irfan Pathan and coached by Jacob Martin, the two-time champions have the in-form Hardik Pandya in the squad. A handy medium-pacer, he struck form with the bat in three of the four games, and will be in the spotlight after his recent selection for the T20s in Australia.

A lethal striker of the ball, the Mumbai Indians (MI) all-rounder will be in action at the Wankhede, MI’s home base for six weeks every summer. “Hardik gives a lot of confidence to the side, both with his batting and bowling,” says Jacob Martin, who promoted Pandya to No. 3.

Like Pandya, Baroda has a reputation to protect. After all, it won the title in 2012 and 2014. “We play to win and I see no reason why that cannot happen again. Our side has experience and young talent,” added Martin, whose team will take on Vidarbha in the opener on Friday. The second match at the Wankhede will feature Kerala and host Mumbai. Parthiv Patel’s Gujarat will take on Gautam Gambhir-led Delhi at BKC. That game will be followed by Jharkhand’s match against Uttar Pradesh, led by Suresh Raina.

Mumbai coach Chandrakant Pandit, who was the director of cricket at the Kerala Cricket Association last season, will bump into some familiar faces on Friday. “The Kerala team is familiar for me, but that matters little in the T20 format,” says the former India stumper. Shreyas Iyer is the player he turns to for momentum in the batting. “We have good depth in batting. Shreyas is scoring quickly in the first six overs, and that is helping the team,” he adds.

Medium-pacers Shashank Singh and Shivam Dubey are the additions to the Mumbai squad. “It’s a young side. The boys play fearless cricket, especially with the bat. The newcomers are effective in the slog overs,” Pandit says. He reckons Kerala is a “dangerous” team, especially with Sanju Samson in roaring form. Captained by Sachin Baby, talented players like Prashanth Padmanabhan and Rohan Prem are on lookout for every opportunity to display their skills ahead of the IPL auction.

PLAYING ON FRIDAY

At Wankhede Stadium (Group ‘A’): Vidarbha vs Baroda (9 am), Kerala vs Mumbai (1 pm)

At Sharad Pawar Cricket Academy (Group ‘B’): Gujarat vs Delhi, Jharkhand vs Uttar Pradesh (1 pm)