Quality of pitches leaves a lot to be desired

VIJAY LOKAPALLY & RAKESH RAO

IT was a competition relegated to the backstage until the National selectors decided to restore prestige to the Duleep Trophy by watching some of the matches. The players did not have their heart in the tournament essentially because of the timing of the competition and the choice of the venues. It hardly enhanced the image of the Board when the teams complained of poor accommodation and playing conditions at Gurgaon.

The victorious North Zone team. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

The quality of the pitches, with the exception of the PCA Stadium, left a lot to be desired. "We've done our best," declared Venkat Sunderam as chief of the committee in-charge of this department, but his team came in for scathing criticism from the players and the National selectors. So poor was the pitch at the Devi Lal Stadium in Gurgaon that the first match saw Central Zone and West Zone fail to earn a point, what with the teams not even completing the first innings. For the next match at the same venue, the surface changed colours and this time the ball hit the boot of the batsmen. "It was a shame that a tournament of this stature had to be played on such poor pitches," was the opinion expressed by Dinesh Mongia and Gagan Khoda, the respective captains.

Apart from selection matters, the subject of discussion at all venues remained the state of pitches. This time, two first-time venues, Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh and Gurgaon in Haryana, hosted two matches each. Dharamshala came up with a new facility that bowled every one over. With the Dhauladhar mountain ranges forming a breathtaking backdrop, the Dharamshala Cricket Stadium surely qualifies to be rated the most beautifully located venue to hold a first-class game in the country. Since Himachal played all its home games at this stadium this season, the overused surface lacked bounce when East met South. As a result, the ball tended to stop a little, making stroke-selection difficult. At the same time, the bowlers, seamers and spinners alike, were not to be encouraged as the pitch had little `carry.' Though Shib Sundar Das came up with a century when East made first use of the pitch, the rest of the batsmen from either side struggled. Most wickets fell to some ordinary shots played off equally ordinary bowling.

The ground authorities did a remarkable job by the time North and West arrived nine days later. This time, the bounce was consistently good. After North put on 279 with Pankaj Dharmani showing the way, Delhi medium-pacer Amit Bhandari rocked West and earned his team a 107-run lead. In the second innings, North's Gautam Gambhir and West's Vinayak Mane carried their bats to show that application was the key to stay in the middle on a pitch that assisted the spinners. On an engaging final day's play, North escaped to a 21-run victory to post its second win.

A week earlier at the Devi Lal Stadium, North had met the victory target set by Central with five wickets to spare. This was as important a match for the curator Kishore Sharma as it was for the teams involved. At the back of every one's mind was the Central-West match that ended a few days ago with over 900 runs scored and just 14 wickets falling. The non-completion of the first innings meant that the teams remained pointless. North's more potent attack, with medium pacers Bhandari, Gagandeep Singh and Joginder Sharma settled the argument against the pitch with some very disciplined work.

Yuvraj Singh dominated the East attack with a century in each innings in the final at Mohali. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Like Dharamshala's stadium, the one at Gurgaon is also unique but for a different reason. Unlike any new stadium, it does not have stands. A uniform `hill', separated from the boundary ropes by a metal fence, surrounds the ground. This is surely one venue where the spectators can stretch themselves under the winter sun and enjoy their cricket.

The new format was an interesting one and every team backed it to remain in the years to follow. To make the competition intense, the Board invited England `A', the first time an overseas team was figuring in the Duleep Trophy. Some years ago, Bangladesh had participated in the Wills Trophy but could not make any impact. The English team, a mediocre combination managed by former Aussie wicketkeeper Rod Marsh, fared no better, losing both the matches it played against South Zone and East Zone.

The league phase, for the first time in two groups, was played with the aspirants trying to impress the selectors ahead of the Pakistan tour. Eventually, only Mumbai off-spinner Ramesh Powar managed to find his way. Delhi's Sarandeep Singh and Railways' Kulamani Parida lost out for contrasting reasons. While Sarandeep bowled below par when he had a great opportunity to run through West on a crumbling pitch, Khoda, who hit a brilliant century against West, callously ended Parida's hopes by not using his services when North batted in the fourth innings on a surface where leg-spinner Narendra Hirwani came good. To put things in perspective, Hirwani stood out for his craft, shocking batsmen with astounding deliveries, not to forget his commitment to bowl long spells on an unresponsive pitch.

North was the champion team in every term. "We played like a team and that helped us win the trophy. Batting was our strength and it was good that Yuvraj (Singh) joined the team in the final. His presence made the difference and I'm glad that almost every player contributed," said a beaming Mongia, after the team beat East in the final at Mohali. Fittingly the pitch at Mohali, prepared by Daljit Singh, came in for praise from the rival teams. It had bounce and pace and created a quality match that saw the players raise their level.

South's Y. Venugopala Rao (middle), who scored an unbeaten double century, is congratulated by S. Badrinath after their team's memorable victory against England `A' at the TERI Oval in Gurgaon. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

North was well served by Yuvraj in the final. His century in each innings was an outstanding feat. That he was directed to play the final was another matter as Yuvraj requested rest to treat his sore shoulder. "I don't like to miss domestic matches and it was just a request to rest. But I was directed to play and I'm happy I helped my team win the match," said Yuvraj. Both his innings were emphatic demonstration of his class at this level as he dominated the East bowlers with a most disciplined approach. "He made the difference," conceded East skipper Devang Gandhi as his side lost comprehensively in the end.

East had a glorious chance to call the shots but for a silly shot by Kiran Powar. Having guided East's first innings with a sterling century, the left-hander from Mumbai played a casual stroke to hole out in the deep with North's first innings total a mere eight runs away. Had East taken the first innings lead the contest would have certainly taken a different course. North recovered and set the opposition a winning target of 400-plus. East made a game effort but failed to sustain it.

East deserved a place in the final for its ability to play well within the limitations. Shib Sundar Das distinguished himself with centuries against South and North while medium-fast Shib Sankar Paul won the hearts with his hard work in all the matches. His five-wicket haul against England `A' was followed by some accurate stuff against North in the final. This bowler from Toofangunj in Cooch Behar commanded respect from all and earned the praise of the selectors too. His line and length was the feature of his bowling.

England `A's Kevin Pietersen -- best batsman of the tournament. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Another bowler to catch the eye of the selectors was Haryana youngster Joginder Sharma. His ability to extract pace surprised most batsmen and his contribution with the bat made him an asset. He would be worth watching in the times to come. As would Gagandeep of Punjab.

In terms of excitement, the match between South and England `A' at the TERI Oval was the best of the tournament. Kevin Pietersen, the best batsman of the tournament, hit a century in each innings to show his class. It was his quality batsmanship that enabled England `A' set a target of 501 — a daunting peak that had never been scaled on Indian soil.

North's Ajay Ratra has no clue to this one from Shib Sankar Paul in the final. The East Zone medium-pace bowler, who commanded respect from the batsmen, earned the praise of the selectors, too. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

But South made a gallant attempt with S. Sriram showing the way. His century motivated Y. Venugopala Rao, a compact batsman from Andhra, to give his best. Venugopala Rao came up with an unbeaten double century and in the company of S. Badrinath, the target was achieved, leaving England `A' in a trance. A pity, this great win failed to help South make further progress as East defeated England `A' outright at Amritsar to make it to the final.

At the end of the tournament, there was consensus among the players that the Duleep Trophy deserved better treatment. Play it at established centres was the common refrain. And Hirwani pleaded on behalf of everyone "on decent pitches. Let them not destroy young bowlers by preparing dead tracks. It'll not help anyone to play such important fixtures on placid pitches." It was a point well made by a veteran who stands out as a great motivation for all players to understand the significance of playing in domestic cricket. The presence of Hirwani and left-arm spinners Utpal Chatterjee and Sunil Joshi lent quality to the bowling, as did the presence of some youngsters like Joginder and Paul.

The scores:

Final: At Mohali: North Zone 330 (Yuvraj Singh 106, D. Mongia 84, G. Gambhir 46, S. S. Paul five for 83, D. Mohanty three for 52) and 400 (Yuvraj Singh 148, A. Chopra 95, D. Mongia 48, Utpal Chatterjee four for 63) beat East 330 (Kiran Powar 103, Arindam Das 70, D. Gandhi 42, Utpal Chatterjee 39, Sarandeep five for 64) and 349 (Kiran Powar 97, M. S. Dhoni 60, R. Gavaskar 49, Arindam Das 35, M. Manhas three for 15, A. Bhandari three for 71). North won by 59 runs. League: Group I: At Dharamshala: East Zone 388 (S. S. Das 120, L. R. Shukla 84, Arindam Das 55, N. P. Singh four for 66, Sunil Joshi three for 112) and 216 for nine decl. (D. Gandhi 87, R. Gavaskar 37, Sunil Joshi three for 48) drew with South Zone 331 (S. Ramesh 57, Sunil Joshi 51, S. Sharath 48, Y. Venugopal Rao 41, N. P. Singh 39, R. Ramkumar 30, S. Lahiri three for 70) and seven for no loss. Match drawn. East: 2; South: 0.

At Gurgaon: England `A' 377 (K. P. Pietersen 104, G. R. Napier 76, M. J. Prior 66, S. A. Newman 31, S. Joshi four for 106) and 297 for eight decl. (K. P. Pietersen 115, G. R. Napier 64, J. C. Tredwell 36, B. M. Shafayat 34, Sreeshant three for 79, S. Joshi three for 91) lost to South Zone 174 (Y. Venugopala Rao 58 not out, S. Sriram 44, R. Ramkumar 43, J. C. Tredwell four for 41) and 503 for four (Y. Vengopala Rao 228, S. Sriram 117, S. Badrinath 100 not out). South won by four wickets. South 4; England `A' 0.

At Amritsar: East Zone 283 (S. S. Das 124, M. S. Dhoni 52, J. C. Tredwell five for 101, G. R. Napier three for 54) and 308 (L. R. Shukla 60, D. Gandhi 59, S. S. Das 55, Kiran Powar 40, Sourashish Lahiri 40, Mahmood five for 62, J. C. Tredwell four for 130) beat England `A' 225 (M. J. Prior 82, M. J. Lumb 33, K. P. Pietersen 32, S. S. Paul five for 61, Utpal Chatterjee three for 55) and 273 (K. P. Pietersen 94, M. J. Prior 46, E. T. Smith 42, Kadeer Ali 34, S. Lahiri five for 118, S. S. Paul three for 53). East won by 93 runs. East 4; England `A' 0.

Group II: At Gurgaon: Central Zone 549 (G. Khoda 156, J. P. Yadav 80, R. Prakash 73, D. Bundela 72, V. Saxena 69, S. Bahutule three for 111, Munaf Patel three for 82) drew with West Zone 352 for four (D. S. Jadhav 154, H. Kanitkar 96, J. Martin 50). Match drawn. Central 0; West 0.

At Gurgaon: Central Zone 154 (G. Khoda 46, Joginder Sharma three for 16, A. Bhandari three for 56) and 211 (V. Saxena 51, N. Ojha 35, Gagandeep Singh three for 19, Joginder Sharma three for 43) lost to North Zone 249 (M. Manhas 68, A. Ratra 47, Yuvraj Singh 46, A. Chopra 33, N. Hirwani four for 62) and 118 for five (A. Chopra 43, N. Hirwani three for 31). North won by five wickets. North 4; Central 0.

At Dharamshala: North Zone 279 (P. Dharmani 73, Sarandeep Singh 42, Sangram Singh 34, Joginder Sharma 33, R. Powar four for 62, S. Bahutule three for 64) and 191 (G. Gambhir 111 not out, P. Dharmani 36, R. Powar three for 49, S. Bahutule three for 50) beat West Zone 172 (V. Mane 54, D. Mongia three for 13, A. Bhandari three for 50) and 277 (V. Mane 127 not out, J. Martin 50, Sarandeep Singh four for 99). North won by 21 runs. North 4; West 0.