Champions run aground

Rest of India ran out an easy winner.-Pics:PTI

Uttar Pradesh's inability to rise to the occasion made the Irani Trophy match an exercise in futility. A report by NANDAKUMAR MARAR.

Uttar Pradesh's free fall to a nine-wicket defeat in the 2006 Irani Trophy against Rest of India doesn't make cricketing or commercial sense. The Ranji Trophy champion team lost the battle inside three days, making a mockery of one of the prestigious domestic contests aimed at testing the form of first-class players.

The national selectors were present at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium and the wicket prepared for the five-day match by the VCA was a sporting one. It was bouncy and supportive of swing bowlers, at the same time giving technically sound batsmen the chance to harvest runs.

With bearable weather in October creating positive conditions for keen, healthy competition, the players fortunate to be involved in the match had an added incentive in the form of Nimbus Sports' live telecast. Team and individual sponsors would benefit from this progressive move by the BCCI to promote domestic cricket, besides creating a platform for performers to entertain a mass audience.

Cricket fever was already in the air owing to the Champions Trophy 2006 preliminaries that were in progress. Eventually, the horrors U.P. went through reduced the contest to an experiment gone wrong, with everyone counting the losses.

The good feeling in winning the Ranji Trophy evaporated in the absence of inspirational captain Mohd. Kaif, livewire Suresh Raina and pace bowler Rudra Pratap Singh due to India commitments. Leg-spinner Piyush Chawla, the only remaining international, took a step back from battle citing injury as a reason.

Coach Rajinder Singh Hans used brave words, captain Jyoti Yadav opted to bat first, but when fireworks started in the form of new ball bowlers Zaheer Khan and Lakshmipathy Balaji in full cry, the U. P. batsmen were in the dark, bowled out for 148 in the first innings. They fared marginally better in the second, making 166.

SHALABH SRIVASTAVA,the pick of the U. P. bowlers, castles V. R. V. Singh.-

Faced with such low totals, the mighty Rest batting line-up was not tested. Nimbus Sports' effort, logistical and financial, towards live coverage on its newly-launched Neosports channel was negated due to the quick end. The U. P. team sponsor, a real estate firm coming on board after the Ranji triumph, may have been perplexed, too.

Chairman of selectors, Dilip Vengsarkar, summed up the situation. "Kaif, Raina and R. P. Singh would have given this U.P. side some self-belief, though the result may have still been the same," he said, asserting that the presence of national players was essential to make domestic cricket meaningful. "It is difficult to assess talent when Irani Cup matches end this way."

Vengsarkar, the former India captain and one-time Mumbai youngster who catapulted himself into international cricket at 19 after the 1975 Irani Trophy, is disappointed at the U.P. reserve players' inability to capitalise on the absence of the star players. He also has an explanation. "The international calendar is so hectic that India players are not available for first-class matches. It affects the growth of domestic players, who feel overawed facing the big names," said Vengsarkar, whose savage 110 in Nagpur versus the Rest of India came against spin greats Erapalli Prasanna and Bishan Singh Bedi.

Dilip Vengsarkar, the Chairman of Selectors, was very disappointed at the onesidedness of the match.-

"Mumbai cricket had internationals turning out regularly in club matches. As youngsters, we competed with them/against them so often (matches between my club Dadar Union and Shivaji Park had as many as 10 Test players) that facing experienced names at higher levels was nothing unusual," recalled the stylish middle-order batsman who was one of the pillars of the Indian line-up. "I had been scoring heavily coming into the Irani Trophy that season at all levels. So when an injury to Eknath Solkar gave me an unexpected opportunity to play in the Irani Trophy, I was eager to test my skills against the best."

Shivakant Shukla was a notable exception in the U.P. batting ranks, scoring 52 and 33 after coming out to open against Zaheer, Balaji and V. R. V. Singh operating with the new ball, followed by left-arm spinner Murali Karthik.

"Players have to watch, observe and adjust. Runs could be scored on this track, as long as batsmen played tight," said the Chairman of Selectors. "U.P. lost wickets from the first day because not only was the ball swinging, their batsmen were reaching out."

S. Badrinath top-scored with 80 not out as Rest grabbed a 53-run first-innings lead, then chased down the 113 runs needed in the second innings to win, an hour into play on the third morning. Zaheer Khan and L. Balaji (match haul of six wickets each) found an efficient ally in wicket-keeper Dinesh Karthik (seven catches). Badrinath's two snap catches at forward short leg made left-arm spinner Murali Karthik's efforts worthwhile.

Shalabh Srivastava (five wickets) and Praveen Kumar (four) bowled with courage for U. P., but in a side where batsmen lacked conviction, it was like blowing into the wind.

The Scores

Uttar Pradesh 148 (Praveen Kumar 42, Shivakant Shukla 52, Zaheer Khan four for 46, L. Balaji four for 29) and 166 (Shivakant Shukla 33, Jyoti Yadav 38, G. K. Pandey 38, Amir Khan 26, V. R. V. Singh four for 40) lost to Rest of India 201 (Wasim Jaffer 45, S. Badrinath 80 not out, Shalabh Srivastava five for 74, Praveen Kumar three for 64) and 115 for one (Gautam Gambhir 64 not out).