Challenger comes of AGE

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

India Seniors captain Md. Kaif with the trophy.-V.V. KRISHNAN

IN its 11th edition, the Challenger series finally managed to achieve the status of a limited overs tournament of quality. The tournament assumed significance on two counts — the return of Sachin Tendulkar to competitive cricket and also the selection of the team for the home one-day series against Sri Lanka. It was thus obvious that the degree of competition was high and India Seniors winning the title was in keeping with the form and strength of the team.

For the youngsters it was quite an appropriate stage to showcase their talent in front of coach Greg Chappell. That he was on the lookout for fresh faces added to the excitement and the result was an enhanced pool of youngsters for Chappell to identify his team for the future.

Among the noteworthy performers were India `B' youngsters Piyush Chawla and S. Sreesanth, bowlers of different style, but with a common goal of making an impact in the big league. It was a sweet coincidence that both managed to achieve their dreams by scalping Sachin Tendulkar, a moment both would cherish for all times to come.

"For me it was like living my dreams. Who wouldn't like to get his wicket and I was happy to be among the fortunate ones to have got Sachin out," gushed Sreesanth.

The Kerala fast bowler, a product of MRF Pace Foundation, had a task at hand when he probed Tendulkar with some outswingers. He had developed the quality to move the ball either way under the guidance of Aussie great Dennis Lillee and he put his skills to test against the most accomplished batsman of modern times.

Two late away-swingers were followed by a ball that whipped in and caught Tendulkar in two minds. It was a fatal error by the master and he was trapped plumb, giving Sreesanth a platform to build his future on. "It was a great moment for me," Sreesanth exulted. He had exploited Tendulkar's apparent weakness against the in-coming ball and the maestro's long lay off from the game had also contributed to his downfall. Tendulkar was rusty no doubt but Sreesanth, who made a huge impression on Chappell and the National selectors, deserved his `catch'. And a place in the India team was just reward.

Robin Uthappa's grand century against India `A' stood out for sheer quality. It had some innovative strokes of wide range.-V.V. KRISHNAN

For Chawla, a diminutive leg-spinner from Aligarh, it was an incredible moment. Rated high by Anil Kumble and promoted by National junior selector Pravin Amre, this leg-spinner managed to flummox Tendulkar with a `googly'. It was some achievement by the young man even conceding the fact that Tendulkar was testing his elbow injury more than his form.

Not many bowlers have breached Tendulkar's confidence the way Chawla did in a conflict that was brief but lasting in terms of the end result. Tendulkar may have spotted the `googly' but then he was cramped into submission, stunned by the pace the ball generated on landing. The master batsman had no clue and was left embarrassed as the ball crashed into the stumps. The spectators were shocked, and disappointed, but a little fellow celebrated the most momentous happening of his cricket career. These are formative years for Chawla but on the basis of his displays here in Mohali, a great future beckons.

The batsmen, too, were under the spotlight. Robin Uthappa produced a stinging assault to match the two big knocks by Y. Venugopala Rao, a stirring century by V. V. S. Laxman, a classy composition by Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan, timely reminders by Yuvraj Singh and a skillful effort by Suresh Raina.

Uthappa's grand innings stood out for sheer quality. It had some innovative strokes of wide range while Sivaramakrishnan, who has a first-class century as a tail-ender, joined Uthappa as an opener to watch. Laxman played a role he has come to master while Raina's was a delightful show under stress. Venugopala played for his place and secured it with two innings that justified his reputation and Yuvraj did not surprise by excelling on home turf. It was a treat to watch batting of such variety.

'Who wouldn't like to get his wicket and I was happy to be among the fortunate ones to have got Sachin out.' - Sreesanth-V.V. KRISHNAN

Watching from the sidelines, all-time great stumper Syed Kirmani was all praise for the young talent on view. "This stiff competition for places augurs well for India cricket. It's always nice to see youngsters push the seniors and some of the boys look as good as those established in the Indian team," said Kirmani.

As always, the Punjab Cricket Association did a splendid job with its arrangements, and showed the way to the other associations by making huge profits from the tournament. The PCA managed to market the event well, a rare happening in domestic cricket. The Challenger Series, after limping along for more than a decade, had a sponsor too this time, Kingfisher

The scores

India Seniors 289 for eight in 50 overs (Y. Venugopala Rao 98, Yuvraj Singh 50) lost to India `A' 291 for nine in 49.4 overs (V. V. S. Laxman 48, Hemang Badani 46).

India `B' 240 in 49.4 overs (Parthiv Patel 53, S. Sriram 44, Irfan Pathan three for 39) lost to India Seniors 242 for three in 45.5 overs (Y. Venugopala Rao 101 not out, Yuvraj Singh 99 not out).

India `A' 260 for eight in 50 overs (V. V. S. Laxman 110, Suresh Raina 97) lost to India `B' 264 for three in 38.5 overs (Robin Uthappa 116, S. Sriram 45, Dinesh Mongia 44, Shikhar Dhawan 40).

Final: India `B' 177 in 42.5 overs (Murali Kartik five for 29) lost to India Seniors 181 for seven in 39 overs (Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan 87).