Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy: Five who caught the eye!

The Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy was watched by selectors, talent scouts and even fans because of the sheer number of superstars in the mix. Given that the next few months are all about slam-bang cricket, the tournament turned out to be very relevant. Sportstar looks at five players, who figured in the event and are finished products in every sense of the word. Who knows, if all goes well, a couple of them could don the India blue sooner than later.

Hardik Pandya... a blossoming all-rounder.   -  PTI

Shreyas Iyer... a dynamite with the bat.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

Mumbai Indians’ head coach Ricky Pointing gives some batting tips to Nitish Rana during the team’s practice session on March 30, 2015. Rana, a left-hand bat, is highly promising.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

R. P. Singh... a strong comeback.   -  PTI

Left-arm spinner Prasanth Padmanabhan (left) is very impressive.   -  THULASI KAKKAT

After years of neglect, it was heartening to see the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) treat the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy with some respect this season. Named after the debonair cricketer who played 11 Test matches between 1934 and 1952, and one who was rechristened the ‘Errol Flynn of cricket’ by the great Keith Miller, the event was considered the poor and malnourished cousin of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Hitherto conducted on a zonal basis, it was a tournament with no real perspective. On a few occasions, the BCCI even held it after the IPL auction!

This year, all that changed. The teams were divided into four highly-competitive groups, throwing up some interesting contests in Nagpur, Kochi, Vadodara and Cuttack. After a gruelling round-robin phase, we had eight teams — Vidarbha, Gujarat, Kerala, Jharkhand, Delhi, Baroda, Uttar Pradesh and Mumbai — feature in the Super League in Mumbai. In the end, Suresh Raina’s Uttar Pradesh trumped Baroda in some style to lift the trophy on a floodlit evening (January 20th) at the Wankhede.

The tournament was watched by selectors, talent scouts and even fans because of the sheer number of superstars in the mix. Given that the next few months are all about slam-bang cricket — Sri Lanka in India for three matches, Asia Cup T20 in Bangladesh, ICC World T20 in India and, of course the IPL in the summer — the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy turned out to be very relevant. Sportstar looks at five players, who figured in the event and are finished products in every sense of the word. Who knows, if all goes well, a couple of them could don the India blue sooner than later.

Hardik Pandya (Baroda)

377 runs in 10 matches at 53.85 with a strike-rate of 130.90, 10 wickets at an economy rate of 6.58.

We know Pandya because of his exploits for Mumbai Indians in the IPL. A fearless cricketer in the Glenn Maxwell mould, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t played for India. The good news, though, is that Pandya is in Australia for the three-match Twenty20 series. Tall, lean and with a smattering of hair that can pass off as a beard, Pandya is one of the cleanest hitters of the ball. Against Vidarbha, he smashed a 46-ball 86 as Baroda made a mockery of the 163-run target. Baroda, who were struggling at 85 for four in the 13th over, needed 63 off the last five overs. Pandya slammed a whopping eight sixes to make the Wankhede look smaller than it actually is! The biggest plus about the 22-year-old is that he is also a handy medium-pacer and a brilliant fielder capable of pulling off blinders in the deep. The sooner he plays for India, the better it is.

Shreyas Iyer (Mumbai)

284 runs in eight matches at 35.50 with a strike-rate of 149.47.

Shreyas Iyer is, quite literally, banging on the door of the national selectors. With more than 900 runs at a run a ball in the Ranji Trophy this season, the 20-year-old is ready for big-ticket cricket. He displayed a great deal of his gifts in the last edition of the IPL, too, by slamming 439 runs for Delhi Daredevils and taking home the ‘Emerging Player’ award. In the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy this season, Iyer opened the innings and gave Mumbai many a good start. It’s a pity that his team didn’t go all the way in the tournament. That said, Iyer knows a phone call from Sandeep Patil is just around the corner.

Nitish Rana (Delhi)

299 runs in nine matches at 42.71 with a strike-rate of 175.88.

You can’t take your eyes off Nitish Rana when he is at the crease. That’s because you never know when he will explode. Rana made his first-class debut this season. And he amassed 557 runs at an average of 50.63. His Twenty20 record is equally impressive because he boasts a gargantuan strike-rate of 152.22. That he has been retained by the Mumbai Indians means he is doing something right. During the Super League of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Sportstar caught up with the 22-year-old. Rana, a left-hander, smashed 97 runs off 56 balls against Andhra during the group stage of the tournament. That knock was studded with eight fours and as many sixes. In all, he hit 21 sixes in the tournament, two more than Pandya. Rana loves getting inked. He has a couple of tattoos on his left bicep — “ONLY THE STRONG SURIVIVE” and “JUST BECAUSE I AM LOST, IT DOESN’T MEAN I AM LOSING”.

Rudra Pratap Singh

(Gujarat)

14 wickets in nine matches at an average of 15.78 with an economy rate of 6.13.

For someone who played international cricket as a teenager before losing his way in the labyrinth of Indian cricket, RP has indeed come a long way. He is no longer gangly, but that angled, awkward run-up is very much the same. So is the ability to swing the ball into the right-hander and away from the left-hander. Lest we forget, the smile is also intact. When asked how different life is at 30, he said, “Trust me, I am enjoying my bowling. With my experience, I know how to ball to X, Y, Z. I am in complete control of my skills and the relationship between the ball and my palm is just great. I know what I am doing. As a youngster, I was just trying to bowl fast. Now, I know I don’t have to hit the high 140s to pick up wickets. I can do the same by operating in the 130s,” he said. And it’s working. It sure is. As a senior pro in the Gujarat team, RP has picked up early wickets with ridiculous regularity. The unofficial bowling captain of the team, he mentors the Bumrahs and Junejas, thereby easing the workload of captain Parthiv Patel. “By picking Ashish Nehra, who is quite a few years senior to me, the selectors have implied that age is no bar. I am hopeful of playing for India again,” he signed off. For the record, RP starred in the final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, too, destroying a star-studded Delhi with an amazing opening spell.

Prasanth Padmanabhan

(Kerala)

14 wickets in nine matches at an average of 14.00 with an economy rate of 5.60.

Here’s a little-known fact: Prasanth has a whopping 63 wickets in 43 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy matches. That’s 10 more than the second-placed Amit Mishra. Yet he is not a household name in India. This year, he found form yet again as Kerala progressed to the Super League from a tough group. In Mumbai, they stunned Baroda, with Prasanth starring with the bat. A left-arm spinner in the classical mould, Prasanth is also an attacking left-handed batsman who carted the wily Munaf Patel for a couple of sixes in a crunch game. The fact that Prasanth hails from Kerala, still a cricketing backwater when compared to Mumbai, Delhi, Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, is all the more impressive.