South is the champion

KIRTI PATIL

THE punch was missing throughout. And consistency was at a premium.

Members of the South Zone team which won the Deodhar Trophy.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Those who performed are already over the hill and out of favour with the selectors. Those who should have, probably took the championship as a casual outing, or they genuinely got plastered by the opposition.

There was a hint of hope though. Left-arm pacer Salabh Srivastava, all-rounder Robin Morris, stumper Parthiv Patel and opening bat Munish Sharma were the few who need a bit of grooming and more chances to get ready for the future.

As for the competition, West Zone fielded the youngest side, Central had the potential, East was the weakest of the lot and North was in a mess after the opening win.

Nonetheless, all early predictions went wrong. South Zone held on to the thin hope and clinched the inter-zonal one-day championship for the Deodhar Trophy - thanks to the newly-introduced bonus point system. South garnered 14 points, one more than West. Central settled for the third spot with 10 points followed by North (6) and East (2).

After all this exercise, what do our cricket administrators have in hand? A few youngsters, many non-performing current assets, and a few seasoned performers who do it only at the domestic level.

Moreover, the absence of any of the five selectors at the Deodhar Trophy matches just about explains the seriousness of the Cricket Board. All were busy at the India-Zimbabwe Tests, in Nagpur and Delhi.

Is the scheduling of the domestic tournaments a problem? But then where is the time? The National team has been subjected to a tight international calender all the while. Still, it was appalling that those who frequently get picked in the Indian team, treated this championship as a burden.

Mumbai pacer Ajit Agarkar led that category of 'gentlemen'. As if he gets fast wickets elsewhere, a dry and dreary track at the Burlton Park in Jalandhar prompted Agarkar to sit out in West's second match, against South Zone.

Not surprising though. Agarkar was sent all over the Amritsar ground by North, just two days before the Jalandhar match. Since Burlton Park offered a good batting track, it was wise to stay away from it. Though Agarkar played in the remaining matches, in Delhi and Gurgaon, his performance was anything but satisfactory.

Then there were Yuveraj Singh, Dinesh Mongia and Ashish Nehra. All failed to capitalise on such a good opportunity to impress. After the initial success against West, North took it lightly and got smacked on the face. First, it lost valuable two points against East in a rain-stopped match. Then, Central completed the humiliation with a seven-wicket victory, after scuttling out North for 108 runs at Una.

Yuveraj played three innings scoring 28, 18 and 24, and North lost all those matches. Mongia was even worse as he made three, 26, nought and 14. Nehra was equally pedestrian taking four wickets for 107 runs. For North, Munish Sharma and Gautam Gambhir were the top scorers, but runs dried out for both of them, midway through the tournament.

Before the start of the campaign, there was a typical dilemma for North. Captained by wicket-keeper Vijay Dahiya, North also had Ajay Ratra, the current India stumper in one-dayers. Who should keep the wickets? The captain wanted to don the keeping gloves, but the team management insisted on Ratra.

While North faded, East again ended up as the whipping boys. The only two points it managed from four matches was due to rain. Captain Rohan Gavaskar led a team of variable performers and he himself failed to get going with the bat. Rohan's only knock worth mention came against Central Zone, an innings of 45. In the bowling department, Mohanty stood out with his wicket-taking ability, even on the dry, cracking wickets. Central Zone was the most well-knit team. It started well with wins against East and North. In both the matches Central took advantage of the new point system and grabbed the bonus point. By the halfway stage, Central was comfortably ahead of the rest of the field. It had 10 points against South's five and West's four.

Central just had to keep its cool and continue winning. But things worked out otherwise. Against South, with whom it shared the trophy in the 2000-01 season as last year's final ended in a tie, Central got into an uncomfortable situation. Its decision to bat first backfired. Even as openers Jyoti Yadav and Gagan Khoda got going for a 107-run opening wicket partnership, the pair had consumed more than 28 overs. Yadav struck 55 and Khoda 44, but Mohammed Kaif's 52-ball 60 gave some semblance to Central's total.

The target of 231 was challenging on a patchy Nehru Stadium in Gurgaon. South accepted it gladly. Openers J. Arun Kumar and M. S. K. Prasad provided a blazing start as South put 60 runs on the board by the eighth over itself. Then three wickets fell within a space of 20 runs, but South's scoring rate stood in good stead. In the middle-order, S. Sharath, who had been craving for an opportunity, got his first chance. And he capitalised on it. Sharath stroked 65 and brought Central down to its knees as the win helped South narrow the points gap.

Meanwhile, West had recovered from its early drubbing by North. A vintage Vinod Kambli was on the prowl. A nought against North had made Kambli's resolve more firm. He came up with a match-winning knock of 63 against South in Jalandhar.

In Delhi, West should have got the regulation win against East but for the culprit - the overrated Agarkar. In a 40-overs-a-side match, Agarkar was flogged for 59 runs in his eight-over spell and East got past the 200-run mark. In chasing 211, West was rattled by three early blows before Kambli and Hrishikesh Kanitkar steadied the innings. Kambli made 48 while Kanitkar remained unbeaten on 79 and helped West score four points against East.

Going into the last set of matches, Central had 10 points, South nine and West eight. It became a contest for the bonus point as each had a realistic chance of winning the title.

West kept itself up to the task. Central's decision to bat first boomeranged as West's attack anchored by Lalit Patel (three for 24) destroyed the top order. Ramesh Powar and Sairaj Bahutule then scalped two each as West dismissed Central for 130.

The bonus point was well in sight and the opening pair of Altaf Merchant and Parthiv Patel got going nicely. Kambli joined in the party after Parthiv's dismissal and hammered an unbeaten 56 as West ended its campaign with 13 points.

Meanwhile, at the Palam Ground in Delhi, South and North were locked in a pitched battle. For West to win the title, South had to lose to North. For South, a win without the bonus point meant sharing of the prize money with West.

As everything boiled down to the bonus point, South applied pressure through some tight fielding and accurate bowling. Earlier, South had posted 223, which meant it had to win by a minimum margin of 44 runs. It first got rid of the top order - North was reeling at 92 for six. But South went through some anxious moments as Ajay Ratra (51) and Ashish Nehra (22) got together in a repair act. North almost helped West's cause as it reached 176 for eight and was only three runs from denying South the bonus point.

A well-set Ratra attempted a suicidal single, which was never there, and got himself run out. At the same score Venkatesh Prasad trapped the 11th man, Sonu Sharma, plumb in front bringing jubilation in the South camp.

For the record, Hemang Badani topped the batting charts with 195 runs from four innings with an average of 48.75. He was followed by Munish Sharma, who scored 181 runs at 60.3. The others were Vinod Kambli (167 - 83.5), Hrishikesh Kanitkar (165 - 165) and Amay Khurasiya (158 - 52.6).

In bowling, Vijay Bhardwaj was the most successful taking nine wickets for 135 runs with an average of 15 runs per wicket. However, the best average was achieved by Salabh Srivastava, who took seven wickets at 11.71. Ramesh Powar (seven for 98 at 14) and Bhandari (seven for 118 at 16.8) also did well. The other performers were Murali Kartik (six for 110), Lalit Patel (six for 116), Sairaj Bahutule (six for 142) and Debasis Mohanty (six for 153).

As the Indian team struggles to find a 'keeper with good hands, both behind the wicket and in the front, a welcome option has emerged in the form of Parthiv Patel. The captain of the India under-19 squad for the Junior World Cup in New Zealand, Parthiv showed immense promise. Glimpses of his ability in not just keeping wickets, but doing whatever a stumper is expected to do was on show.

The scores:

At Amritsar: West Zone 181 in 45 overs (Hrishikesh Kanitkar 73, Amit Bhandari four for 29) lost to North Zone 183 for two in 44.2 overs (Gautam Gambhir 45, Munish Sharma 99 not out).

At Jalandhar: Central Zone 239 for nine in 50 overs (Amay Khurasiya 96 not out, Devender Bundela 38, Utpal Chatterjee three for 40) beat East Zone 148 in 39 overs (Rohan Gavaskar 45, Harvinder Singh three for 29, Murali Kartik three for 22).

At Jalandhar: South Zone 215 for six in 41.4 overs (J. Arun Kumar 34, Hemang Badani 62, Vijay Bhardwaj 74) lost to West Zone 201 for five in 28.5 overs (Robin Morris 35, Vinod Kambli 63, Jacob Martin 53, Bhardwaj three for 51). (The target was revised to 198 in 29 overs as time was lost due to rain).

At Ludhiana: North Zone 179 for five in 33.2 overs (Munish Sharma 64) v East Zone 25 for two in eight overs. (The match was abandoned and points split).

At Una: North Zone 108 in 34.2 overs (Sangram Singh 34, Salabh Srivastava four for 18) lost to Central Zone 112 for three in 23.1 overs (Khurasiya 50).

At Mandi: South Zone 264 for five in 43 overs (Arun Kumar 32, M. S. K. Prasad 62, Hemang Badani 99, Venugopal Rao 33) beat East Zone 204 in 41.5 overs (Sanjay Raul 45, Venugopal three for 35).

At Gurgaon: Central Zone 230 for eight in 50 overs (Jyoti Yadav 55, Gagan Khoda 44, Mohd. Kaif 60) lost to South Zone 231 for seven in 47.2 overs (M. S. K. Prasad 47, S. Sharath 65, Arjun Yadav 33).

At Delhi: East Zone 211 in 40 overs (Rajiv Kumar 50, Prabhranjan Mallick 50, Laxmi Ratan Shukla 64, Ramesh Powar four for 46) lost to West Zone 215 for seven in 39 overs (Vinod Kambli 48, Kanitkar 79).

At Gurgaon: Central Zone 130 in 32.3 overs (Gagan Khoda 47, J. P. Yadav 32, Lalit Patel three for 24) lost to West Zone 134 for two in 32.5 overs (Altaf Merchant 36, Vinod Kambli 56 not out).

At Delhi: South Zone 223 in 49.5 overs (Vijay Bhardwaj 36, S. Sharath 52, Venugopal Rao 54) beat North Zone 176 in 45 overs (Ajay Ratra 51).

Final standings (read as matches played, won, lost, drawn, points):

1. South Zone 4-3-1-0-14, 2. West Zone 4-3-1-0-13, 3. Central Zone 4-2-2-0-10, 4. North Zone 4-1-2-1-6, 5. East Zone 4-0-3-1-2.