The Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, which begins on Sunday, will be the second Indian domestic tournament, and the first to be held in India, since the global pandemic brought the world to a halt in March, 2020. For many of India’s domestic cricketers who did not get to feature in the IPL, it will end a long, agonising wait to enter a competition.
Thirty eight teams and at least 418 players will participate in the T20 extravaganza, which will be held across six venues - Bengaluru, Kolkata, Vadodara, Indore, Mumbai, and Chennai.
While the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy doesn’t have much limelight, it is important for aspiring domestic cricketers wishing to make it to the IPL and the Indian team. IPL teams send scouts to look for good players from this tournament and others like the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Deodhar Trophy, and eye-catching performances can be a launchpad for better things.
Karnataka opener Devdutt Padikkal, for example, shone through in the competition in 2019-20, and within a year’s time, went out to open the batting with Virat Kohli for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL. The 20-year-old struck five half-centuries in 15 innings, and likely nailed his spot in the team. Had he not enjoyed a fruitful white-ball 2019-20 season with the bat – 609 runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and 580 runs in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy – he may not have got that chance.
Another player who made a statement via the tournament is Hardik Pandya, who emerged as the highest run-getter in 2016 (377 runs, 10 innings). He had fun in the tournament, carting Delhi seamer Akash Sudan for five sixes in one over en route to a 51-ball 81 in a contest. Hardik, noted for his good performances for Mumbai Indians in IPL 2015, was already included in the India T20 squad to tour Australia; his case for debut had been strengthened, and six days after the tournament, he played his first match for India, a T20 International against New Zealand in Adelaide.
India fast bowler Pankaj Singh, who has played this tournament a few times, underlined its value. “This tournament is important for players to get into an IPL team or to get into the Indian team. The players who get picked for the IPL come from these tournaments. Usually, players come into the Indian T20 team on the back of their IPL performances, but sometimes, players from this tournament get picked, too. IPL scouts or selectors also come to these tournaments to note the performances of the Indian players from their team,” he told Sportstar .
Pankaj will be returning to domestic cricket after nearly two years, having missed last season with a bout of dengue. The 35-year-old Rajasthan stalwart will play for Puducherry.
Of course, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy isn’t just about individual performances, as teams are vying to win the title as well, and given the format, tight finishes add to the entertainment value. Last year’s final was a nail-biter; needing 13 runs to win in the final over to beat Karnataka, Tamil Nadu scored 12.
These two teams cannot resume their rivalry until the knockout stage this season. Both are contenders for the top prize; Karnataka’s top performers in 2019-20 – Padikkal and Shreyas Gopal (20 wickets, ER 4.63) – will be there this year, too, as it bids to win its third title in a row, and Tamil Nadu, led by Dinesh Karthik, looks potent as well.
Delhi, led by Shikhar Dhawan, who excelled with the bat for Delhi Capitals in the IPL, is a heavyweight, as are Mumbai, Saurashtra and Vidarbha. Bengal, led by last year’s Ranji Trophy hero Anustup Majumdar, would be the dark horse. As it is the shortest format of the game, expect surprises aplenty.
S. Sreesanth will play his first domestic cricket competition for the first time since he was banned by the BCCI in 2013 for fixing in the IPL. His ban ended in September, 2020, and he will make a comeback for Kerala at the age of 37.
Sreesanth is naturally elated at the opportunity to play again. He wrote on Twitter: “My dear loved ones, please never ever give up on your dreams, always keep at it no matter how small your chances are, if there is no door, build one and keep going strong. God is great. Thanks a lot for all the support you all have shown through these years. Love you all.”
Many players would be capable of making an impact, but some of the well-known players playing the tournament are: Suresh Raina, Karun Nair, Abhimanyu Easwaran, Manoj Tiwary, Dinesh Karthik, Shikhar Dhawan, Ishan Kishan, Suryakumar Yadav, Sanju Samson, Ambati Rayudu, Parvez Rasool, Abhimanyu Mithun, Vijay Shankar, B. Aparajith, Jaydev Unadkat, Varun Aaron, Axar Patel, Piyush Chawla, Krunal Pandya, Jalaj Saxena, Robin Uthappa, and Ishant Sharma.
The tournament will also mark a return to cricket for the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stadium in Motera, Ahmedabad. The newly-renovated stadium is now the largest in India in terms of capacity, but given the threat of COVID-19 infection, spectators will not be allowed to enter. It will host the knockouts, including the final, before serving as the venue for two Tests and five T20s during England’s tour of India in February-March, 2021.