The prestige commanded by the Duleep Trophy, once considered India’s premier domestic showpiece, became a distant memory when, for the past four editions, three teams picked by the national selection panel competed for the title.
Now, returning to its traditional inter-zonal format after a hiatus of close to eight years, the tournament will have another shot at life when defending champion Central Zone, which automatically qualified for the last four, takes on West Zone in the first semifinal at the SNR College Cricket Ground in Coimbatore on Thursday.
With as many as 10 players from the recently-concluded Ranji Trophy final between Madhya Pradesh and Mumbai featuring in the two zonal squads for the semifinal, the battle for pride and redemption will lend context.
The same set of players could provide tantalising matchups. West Zone openers Prithvi Shaw and Yashasvi Jaiswal, coming off scores of 113 and 228, respectively, against debutant Northeast Zone in the first quarterfinal, will have their task cut out against left-arm spinner Kumar Kartikeya and medium-pacer Gaurav Yadav, who were Madhya Pradesh’s top wicket-takers in the preceding Ranji Trophy season.
However, the tables could be turned with Shams Mulani posing a potent threat to Central Zone’s Yash Dubey, Himanshu Mantri and Shubham Sharma, who comprised a prolific top-order in Madhya Pradesh’s title-winning campaign earlier this year.
Meanwhile, pacers Jaydev Unadkat and Chintan Gaja, who dismantled Northeast, will be a handful with the new ball but Central Zone’s settled middle-order, bolstered by captain Karan Sharma, Priyam Garg and Rinku Singh, could have their measure.
The contest will provide a testing ground for West Zone skipper Ajinkya Rahane, who marked his quest for a return to the national Test team with an unbeaten double-hundred against Northeast and set up West Zone’s mammoth 355-run first innings lead in the quarterfinal. Out of favour India all-rounder Venkatesh Iyer, who hasn’t played First-Class cricket since February 2020, could also get a look-in as Central Zone tries to cushion its long tail.
That is something which will not bother West Zone, with its last four of Atit Sheth, Unadkat, Jani and Gaja more than capable of ably wielding the willow. Shaw, Jaiswal and Rahane make an envious top three and an inexperienced middle-order could be the only chink in West’s armour as far as batting is concerned.
How left-arm spinners Mulani and Kartikeya – top wicket-takers of Ranji Trophy 2021-22 – fare for their respective teams could be decisive. It remains to be seen whether West Zone, which played Mulani as the lone specialist spinner in the quarterfinal in Chennai – opts for variety in the spin department, given that Central Zone could field four left-handers in its top seven. Central could leverage the services of another left-arm tweaker Aditya Sarwate – Vidarbha’s leading wicket-taker in the preceding Ranji Trophy season – who is no pushover with the bat.
Despite losing an ensemble cast featuring Sarfaraz Khan (West Zone), Ruturaj Gaikwad (West Zone), Rajat Patidar (Central Zone) and Shardul Thakur (West Zone) to the ongoing series between India ‘A’ and New Zealand ‘A’, and Shreyas Iyer’s availability for West still under a cloud, the contest promises to be a blockbuster.