Sriram tops the list

S. DINAKAR

IN the end, West emerged the best. Not surprising, for Hrishikesh Kanitkar's men were the most balanced outfit in the competition.

The West Zone team which regained the Duleep Trophy.-N. BALAJI

If Wasim Jaffer and Kanitkar made big runs, then we had young paceman Irfan Pathan (jr), leg-spinner Sairaj Bahutule and offie Ramesh Powar, repeatedly making inroads. The bowlers were backed by an efficient Nayan Mongia behind the stumps.

West Zone, scoring 26 points, regained the trophy after three years, though the last occasion the team had won this prestigious domestic title on its own was 16 seasons back.

No wonder the West boys were celebrating after the dust settled at the conclusion of their last league game in Kolkata. The trophy triumph was just reward for fine team-work, though the 'Cup' was not actually presented to the team.

This edition of the Duleep Trophy also witnessed the matches being played on 'uncovered pitches.' It is a well thought out move by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and it deserves to be complimented.

The idea was brave, but the implementation awry. With the tournament being played in the hot months of March and April, there was hardly any dew of the surface by the time the matches got underway.

The very purpose of leaving the pitches uncovered was for the bowlers to exploit the dew on the surface. And to avoid excess moisture on the wicket, the start was delayed, with the matches beginning at only 10 a.m. on the first three days.

However, this actually proved counterproductive with the burning sun hardly leaving any dew on the pitch by the time the umpire called 'play'. On the contrary, even the hint of moisture left on the wicket due to 'sweating' under the covers was absent. If the BCCI is to continue with the experiment, then the tournament should ideally be played in winter.

The BCCI should also ensure that the competition is conducted on sporting pitches. Too many games were played on flat batting tracks, where the bowlers, especially the pacemen, were pushed into the background.

If the Duleep Trophy is a test for the aspirants, then they can be judged only on surfaces with a degree of pace and bounce. Otherwise, with a glut of runs clouding the assessment, the tournament becomes an exercise in futility.

With places in the India and India 'A' sides up for grabs, there was plenty to play for, as far as the cricketers were concerned. Yet, they should be willing to battle it out on slightly wet pitches if the need arises, for when the wickets are uncovered, ideal batting conditions following rain delays is well nigh impossible.

The idea of getting more India players to compete also fell flat, with the tournament sandwiched between the last days of the home season and the early phase of the West Indian tour. A Sachin Tendulkar, even for a single game, would have given the tournament a fillip, apart from keeping the turnstiles busy.

In the absence of the Big Guns, some of the lesser names had their moments under the sun. For West, Wasim Jaffer, a calm, collected opener, sound off his backfoot, scripted an India comeback, notching up centuries in each innings (122 & 103 not out) against Central at Rajkot. The Mumbai right-hander followed this with efforts of 78 and 58 against North in Pune, and he had earned a place in the Indian squad for the Caribbean tour.

Wasim thus was missing for the last two matches. However, skipper Kanitkar assumed centre-stage, displaying his innings building skills to compile 192 and 197, against South (Chennai) and East (Kolkata) respectively.

On a comeback trail, Kanitkar mixed caution with aggression and took the responsibility of guiding the innings upon himself. As the skipper he did show the way.

West achieved convincing victories over Central and North and the credit must go to the bowlers. Ifran Pathan (jr) rocked the Central batting with a 10-wicket match haul, a fine achievement for the 19-year-old left-arm paceman.

And Bahutule was the wrecker-in-chief at Pune with nine scalps in the match, not to forget his strokeful century that took the game away from North. While his leg-spin was steady, Bahutule, who strikes the ball with effortless ease, is a much better batsman than given credit for.

The under-rated Ramesh Powar chipped in as well, supporting Bahutule for most part apart from contributing with the bat. Powar's finest moment arrived at the Eden Gardens where the off-spinner cut a swathe through the East line-up on the last day with six for 35. And when Ajit Agarkar returned from his India duty, he did send down some lively spells.

Nayan Mongia, who had to endure the disappointment of being overlooked by the National selectors yet again, came up with knocks of 70 not out (Central), 76 and 76 not out (North) apart from being impeccable behind the stumps.

Along the way West discovered a strokeful middle order batsman in Kaushik Aphale and a stubborn opener in Nilesh Modi. The champion team they certainly were.

For the displaced champion, North, the defeat at the hands of West proved costly. North defeated Central, gained the lead over East and South, yet that was not enough. In the end, Vikram Rathour's men, with 18 points, managed to pip East to a runner-up spot.

Rathour, a prolific scorer in domestic circuit, feasted on the East bowling with a 249 at New Delhi, and reached a century against South to make his presence felt yet again. However, it was Yuveraj Singh, who made the most out of his matured 209 against South in Faridabad, earning a recall to the India one-day side, and then to the 'A' side for the South African tour.

Another batsman to impress in the North ranks was Delhi opener Akash Chopra, a technically sound opener. He carried his bat with 119, holding firm at one end, even as the North innings came apart in Pune. He compiled 143 against Central, and certainly enhanced his claims with the selectors.

North had an unexpected batting hero. Off-spinner Sarandeep Singh notched up an unbeaten 72 against West, and almost took a century off the Central attack at a critical juncture, falling just six runs short of the three-figure mark. This was also a match where the off-spinner grabbed seven wickets. Soon on an SOS, Sarandeep was off to the West Indies, with a question mark over Harbhajan Singh's fitness.

In the pace department, left-armer Aashish Nehra produced a fine display (five for 46) that was instrumental in South being bowled out for 168 on the first day in Faridabad. Nehra's efforts were rewarded too; he edged out Agarkar in the squad for the West Indies. Among the others, Punjab's Vineet Sharma delivered a few nippy spells.

East, that required to defeat West outright in the last match to emerge champion, eventually ended up with a disappointing 17 points. Mark Ingty, the first paceman of promise to emerge out of the North East, bowled incisively on occasions, while all-rounder Laxmi Ratan Shukla provided glimpses of his potential.

Deep Dasgupta made a hundred against Central in Kolkata, opening the innings, an effort that might have enabled him gain a last gasp spot in the side for the West Indies. Opener Debang Gandhi scored a hundred against South, while Shubhomoy Das, an attractive middle-order batsman, came up with a fighting 97 at Delhi, countering the North attack.

The match-winning innings for East though, came from the free-stroking No. 3 Ranjan Parida, whose 127 against Central, was worth its weight in gold for his side.

South Zone's chances were dented by some puzzling selections in the name of giving all contenders a chance. Compact left-handed opener Sridharan Sriram was consistency personified for the side, his best moments surfacing against West in Chennai, where he produced 82 and 140. He notched up a hundred against Central on a turning track in Jaipur too and did put his hand up for India selection again.

Sriram's Tamil Nadu opening partner Sadagopan Ramesh, who had a 'horror season' really, found himself dropped after the first game, while D. Vinay Kumar, a pleasing on-side player, produced a couple of timely knocks at No. 3. The never-say-die S. Sharath made a second innings hundred against North, but subsequently, like Karnataka's Vijay Bharadwaj, was unable to cash in on starts. Hemang Badani, battling a strained back, walked in late to give South the lead over East in Bangalore, but overall, this was not a season the talented southpaw would remember. The fact that South suffered a defeat at the hands of Central, albeit narrowly, does not cover the side in glory.

M.S.K. Prasad made a hundred opening the innings in Bangalore, kept wickets tidily, but his captaincy lacked imagination.

The constant chopping and changing of the attack by the selectors did not help matters either. Venkatesh Prasad was the best bowler on view against West, but soon found himself out of the side. South erred in going into the matches against West and East with just one specialist spinner and when Kerala left-armer Suresh Kumar was finally picked for the last encounter against Central, he actually ended up scalping ten for the match! Another 'spin' gain for South was H. Watekar, an offie with interesting possibilities.

Central lost the first three matches, but bounced back to defeat South in Jaipur to regain some of the lost pride. Off-spinner Kulamani Parida, as usual, picked up wickets in buckets, a ten-wicket match haul against East being the highlight. And towards the end, another offie Rahul Kanwat, sparkled for Central.

Among the batsmen, Yere Goud made a century against East Zone and J. P. Yadav was consistent, scoring an unbeaten 120 against West. He was useful with the cherry too, his medium pace swing providing the breakthroughs on occasions. Gagan Khoda, Jyoti Yadav, and Devendra Bundela, all made runs at various stages of the competition but Central, for most part, failed to jell as a team.

The scores: Faridabad, March 12 to 15.

South Zone 168 (D. Vinay Kumar 50, Vijay Bharadwaj 64, Aashish Nehra five for 46, Rahul Sanghvi four for 47) and 422 for six (Sridharan Sriram 77, D. Vinay Kumar 76, Hemang Badani 59, Sridharan Sharath 102, Nehra three for 92) drew with North Zone 558 for nine decl. (Vikram Rathour 104, Yuveraj Singh 209, Mithun Minhas 44, Shafiq Khan 60, Vijay Dahiya 53 not out, Venkatesh Prasad three for 103). North Zone five points, South three.

Rajkot, March 12 to 15.

West Zone 416 (Connor Williams 74, Wasim Jaffer 122, Nayan Mongia 70 not out, Kulamani Parida four for 96, Narendra Hirwani four for 137) and 213 for two decl. (Jaffer 103 not out, Hrishikesh Kanitkar 40) bt Central 241 (Gagan Khoda 83, J.P. Yadav 61 not out, Irfan Pathan (jr) four for 74, Ramesh Powar three for 92, Sairaj Bahutule three for 18) and 227 (Gagan Khoda 51, J.P. Yadav 120 not out, Irfan Pathan (jr) six for 62, Sairaj Bahutule three for 68). West Zone eight points, Central nil.

Kolkata, March 19 to 22.

East Zone 365 (Shiv Sundar Das 60, Deep Dasgupta 112, Sanjay Raul 40, Lakshmi Ratan Shukla 40, Kulamani Parida four for 41) and 211 (R.R. Parida 127, Kulamani Parida six for 39) bt Central Zone 314 (Jyoti Yadav 48, Yere Goud 125 not out, Mark Ingty three for 57, Sourashish Lahiri three for 57) and 121 (Gagan Khoda 39, Ingty four for 29, Utpal Chatterjee three for 32). East Zone eight points, Central nil.

Pune, March 19 to 21.

West Zone 396 (Wasim Jaffer 78, Nayan Mongia 76, Sairaj Bahutule 105, Aashish Nehra three for 70, Mithun Minhas three for 31) and 273 for nine decl. (Jaffer 58, Kanitkar 45, Mongia 76 not out, Nehra four for 55) bt North 238 (Sarandeep Singh 72 not out, Irfan Pathan (jr) four for 72, Sairaj Bahutule five for 56) and 253 (Akash Chopra 119 not out, Vikram Rathour 44, Irfan Pathan (jr) three for 85, Bahutule four for 58, Ramesh Powar three for 49). West Zone eight points, North nil.

Chennai, March 26 to 29.

South Zone 292 (S. Sriram 82, S. Sharath 42, Ajit Agarkar three for 47, Sairaj Bahutule three for 53) and 266 for three (S. Sriram 140, D. Vinay Kumar 96) drew with West Zone 496 (Hrishikesh Kanitkar 192, Kaushik Aphale 76, Bahutule 68, Ramesh Powar 54, Venkatesh Prasad three for 53, H. Watekar five for 163). West five points, South three.

New Delhi, March 26 to 29.

North Zone 567 for five decl. (Akash Chopra 58, Vikram Rathour 249, Shafiq Khan 73, Vijay Dahiya 76 not out, Yashpal Singh 53 not out) and 186 for four (Shafiq Khan 48) drew with East Zone 459 (Parag Das 63, Debang Gandhi 44, R.R. Parida 62, Shubhumoy Das 97, Lakshmi Ratan Shukla 58, Sourashish Lahiri 40, Sarandeep Singh five for 124, Rahul Sanghvi three for 155). North Zone five points, East three.

Bangalore, April 2 to 5.

East Zone 398 (Parag Das 78, Debang Gandhi 125, R.R. Parida 41, Zakaria Zufri 45, H. Watekar four for 80) and 141 for three decl. (R.R. Parida 65, Sanjay Raul 50 not out) drew with South Zone 419 (M.S.K. Prasad 104, Hemang Badani 68, Vijay Bharadwaj 48, S. Sharath 49, Utpal Chatterjee three for 87). South Zone five points, East three.

Bangalore, April 2 to 5.

Central Zone 368 (Jyoti Yadav 80, J.P. Yadav 68, Devendra Bundela 116 not out, Vineet Sharma four for 54, Sarandeep Singh four for 142) and 175 (Paresh Sutane 50, Vineet Sharma three for 43, Sarandeep Singh three for 49) lost to North Zone 407 (Akash Chopra 143, Sarandeep Singh 94, J.P. Yadav four for 94, S. Pandey three for 81) and 137 for three (Akash Chopra 69 not out). North Zone eight points, Central nil.

Kolkata, April 9 to 12.

West Zone 529 for six decl. (Nilesh Modi 118, Hrishikesh Kanitkar 197, S. Kotak 50, K. Aphale 51) and 47 for four drew with East 162 (L.R. Shukla 48, Z. Zufri 44, Irfan Pathan (jr) four for 43, Ramesh Powar six for 35). West Zone five points, East three.

Jaipur, April 9 to 12.

South Zone 241 (S. Sriram 102, Arjun Yadav 54, K. Parida three for 67, Rahul Kanwat five for 74) and 201 (S. Sriram 76, Jyoti Yadav three for 11) lost to Central 193 (Jyoti Yadav 67, H. Watekar three for 51, Suresh Kumar five for 54) and 250 for eight (Jyoti Yadav 69, Suresh Kumar five for 95). Central eight points, South nil.

A GLORIOUS musical without sound, the empty Eden Gardens was. Indeed, with hardly fifty spectators watching the West-East Duleep clash, there were countless rows of unoccupied seats in the huge arena. The setting almost appeared surreal.

Things turned even more bleak on the third day, when rain permitted less than an hour's cricket. A day that was extremely frustrating for the aspirants, whose wait for 'action' was almost unending.

One young man seemed more restless than the others. From the dressing room he gazed at the pitch with steely eyes and then took a walk around the ground with a ball in his hands.

Irfan Pathan (jr) had already enjoyed a wonderful Duleep Trophy as a strike bowler for the West Zone, yet, desperately wanted one final fling at the batsmen.

He was like a caged tiger and, not surprisingly, when Irfan finally received an opportunity to bowl late on the third day and then on the fourth, he ripped through the East top and middle order, with four strikes. There was too little time left in the game to force a result, but the Baroda left-arm paceman had made his point.

Looking back, it was that four-wicket haul that enabled Irfan to finish at the top of the list among this season's Duleep wicket-takers with 22 from four games, just one ahead of Central Zone off-spinner Kulamani Parida. A creditable achievement indeed for one who is so young - Irfan is not yet nineteen.

Irfan blossoming for West Zone is also good news for Indian cricket. He does appear a young bowler with a lot going for him. The lad is lively, possesses a natural inswinger bowling from over the wicket which means he just needs to angle a few across the right-hander to put the seeds of doubt into the batsman's mind. He is not averse to hustling his adversaries with a few short-pitched ones being aggressive by instinct.

And there is always the likely prospect of Irfan, a product of the MRF Pace Foundation, bowling a yard or two quicker considering that he should fill out more as he grows up.

Irfan began his Duleep 'run' with a destructive performance against Central Zone in Rajkot. His four for 74 in the first innings was followed by six for 62, and the paceman now had a ten-wicket match haul in this prestigious domestic competition.

Then, in Pune, where there is an element of bounce for pacemen willing to bend their backs, Irfan turned in another fine performance grabbing seven wickets and forming an effective pace-spin combination with leggie Sairaj Bahutule.

When spearhead Ajit Agarkar returned for the duel against South in Chennai, Irfan supported the senior paceman well, and was distinctly unlucky not to scalp more. Not much later arrived his blistering spell against East, capping a splendid 'run.'

The heartening factor in Irfan's displays is the fact that he struck with, both, the new and the old ball; he does achieve reverse swing, surprising batsmen in the later stages of the innings.

Irfan is a true product of the system, having represented India in the under-15 and under-19 competitions where he provided glimpses of his unquestionable talent. This coupled with a stint at the NCA got him ready in quick time for first class cricket.

Irfan is thankful to the Chennai-based MRF Pace Foundation - "I have learn't so many things there from the great Dennis Lillee and when he's not around, from T.A. Sekar."

This simple boy is also aware that he has a lot more to learn in the demanding journey ahead. "There is so much competition now. I have to consistently pick up wickets."

For someone just into his second year in Ranji Trophy, Irfan has indeed made rapid strides. And the fact that he had to fight for a place in the Baroda side that has Zaheer Khan, Rashid Patel and Irfan Pathan (Sr.) only sharpened his combative instincts.

Combative, he certainly is. Watch out for Irfan Pathan (Jr.). He has interesting possibilities.

SOME international careers go wrong in a hurry and soon we look for reasons. Often, they are not hard to find.

Take Sridharan Sriram's case for instance. The compact left-handed opener with the ability to concentrate for long periods was thrust in the shallow but more lucrative world of one-day cricket.

Here, he came across as a bits and pieces cricketer, since he could also bowl containing spells and field brilliantly. Given his innings-building skills, Sriram's future always lay in the longer variety of the game.

Pushed into the hectic ODI scenario, the predictable happened. The Tamil Nadu batsman appeared a confused cricketer, having to abandon the 'waiting game' he was so familiar with. And those doomed pull shots saw him pulled out of the Indian side quick and fast.

To his credit, Sriram, not letting the self-doubts consume him, did what he knew best - compile big scores again in domestic cricket. In other words, he let his bat do the talking.

Given his hunger for runs, Sriram, not surprisingly, has emerged the top run-getter in the Duleep Trophy this season with a whopping 522 runs in seven innings. His team, the South Zone had a forgettable tournament though.

An opener has to be consistent and Sriram's efforts reflected just this - 10 & 77 against North in Faridabad, 82 & 140 (West, Chennai), 34 (East, Bangalore) and 102 & 76 (Central, Jaipur).

In the process, he had made more runs than two other in-form openers, Vikram Rathour (488 in seven) and Akash Chopra (478 runs in seven), the North Zone top-order pair.

And the West Zone, skipper and No. 3 Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who like Sriram is a better bet in the longer variety due to his temperament, did not fare badly either making 485 in six.

Topping the list is just reward for Sriram, for he works extremely hard at his game. Some might call him limited, but then, being 'limited' is not such a bad thing for an opener with a specific job to perform.

In fact, this year, Sriram had hundreds against two visiting teams as well - the Colombo District Cricket Association side in the Gopalan Trophy match in Chennai and then in the England-Board President's XI match in Hyderabad.

The man must surely be back in contention, at least for a place in the India 'A' side. All credit to him for keeping the faith.

In this edition of the Duleep Trophy, the 26-year-old Sriram produced fine knocks on a turner against Central, however, his innings of 82 and 140 in Chennai, should take the pride of place, given the quality of the West attack.

The pacy Ajit Agarkar was bowling to a nice rhythm, the young Irfan Pathan (jr), kept the pressure up, and Sriram did have a job on his hands. Wisely, he played to his strengths, putting emphasis on defence.

On the occasions, the bowlers erred in length, he was quick with the cut and the pull, and punched the pacemen off the back-foot whenever the opportunity presented itself.

When spinners Sairaj Bahutule and Ramesh Powar were pressed into action by Kanitkar, Sriram used his feet, and rotated the strike, running quite brilliantly between the wickets.

Sriram's career is an interesting one. In his early days, he was considered a gifted left-arm spinner, with a lovely action, followed by flight, loop and turn.

Then, even as he entered his late teens, Sriram gradually lost his action, and as a consequence, his bowling went off the boil. However, Sriram, not the kind to give up, did not allow bowling to desert him completely.

He had lengthy stints at the nets and is now a useful customer, although the temptation to count him as a main-line spinner in a first class match will only be a folly.

Sriram, who was in the first batch of National Cricket Academy boys, is obsessed with fitness and this is reflected in his fielding; he is quick on his feet and is not averse to throwing himself at the ball.

He may be small in build, but his appetite for success is rather big. He may have stumbled in the international arena, but do not count this tenacious man out. Sridharan Sriram could still end up surprising a lot of people.