This used to be the springboard to international cricket, the tournament that brought the best players in the country on a single platform, a snappy first-class event that was so competitive that it all but prepared the protagonists for the tougher grind that the game is at the highest level.
The Duleep Trophy, sadly, has been reduced to a formality now. Sometimes unwanted, sometimes uncelebrated, mostly unheralded and occasionally, like this year, an afterthought. The tournament, starting in Lucknow under lights on Thursday (September 7), was originally left out of the domestic calendar, and only reinstated at the insistence of Diana Edulji, a member of the Committee of Administrators, and Sourav Ganguly, the former India captain who is now the head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s technical committee.
India Red: Abhinav Mukund (capt), Priyank Panchal, Sudip Chatterjee, Ishank Jaggi, Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik, Rishabh Pant (wk), Baba Indrajith, K Gowtham, Karn Sharma, Basil Thampi, Dhawal Kulkarni, Ashok Dinda, Rahul Singh, CV Milind.
India Green: M Vijay, R Samarth, Prashant Chopra, Shreyas Iyer, Karun Nair, Ankit Bawne, Parthiv Patel (capt, wk), Shahbaz Nadeem, Parveez Rasool, Navdeep Saini, Mohammed Siraj, Sidharth Kaul, Mayank Dagar, Nitin Saini, Aniket Choudhary.
India Blue: Samit Gohel, KS Bharat, Abhimanyu Easwaran, Suresh Raina (capt), Manoj Tiwary, Deepak Hooda, Vijay Shankar, Ishan Kishan (wk), Jayant Yadav, Bhargav Bhatt, Kaushik Gandhi, Ishant Sharma, Ankit Rajpoot, Sagun Kamat, Jaydev Unadkat.
From the days when the five zones, packed with India internationals and those just below the superstars in the pecking order, did frenetic battle, the Duleep Trophy has become a tournament of colours – India Red, Green and Blue, all playing with the pink ball – though it is far from the colourful, vibrant entity it once used to be. For the players involved, it offers the opportunity to dust off pre-season rust and keep themselves relevant ahead of a season of limited Test matches. Beyond that, this hastily put together competition is unlikely to serve too much of a purpose, particularly given that India aren’t scheduled to play a day-night Test at home anytime in the near future.
With the senior team winding up their assignments in Sri Lanka on Wednesday and then due to engage Australia in a five-match One-Day International series at home from September 17, the cream of Indian cricket will once again not figure in the Duleep plans. Throw in the fact that R Ashwin and Cheteshwar Pujara are away playing county cricket in England, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja are resting after a gruelling season, and that Yuvraj Singh and Gautam Gambhir – both of who used this tournament as the launch-pads for their international comeback last season – have been overlooked, and there is a distinct lack of glamour to the erstwhile tournament of kings.
That said, competitive cricket is less about glamour and bling, and more about substance. And that’s precisely what the likes of M Vijay, Parthiv Patel, Jayant Yadav and Karun Nair in particular will look to showcase.
India have no more than a half-dozen Tests lined up over the next 10 months leading in to their tour of England – three at home against Sri Lanka in November, and perhaps that many in South Africa early next year, even though there is no clarity on that yet. Vijay, who pulled out of the Test series in Sri Lanka with a wrist injury, must string together a series of big scores to work his way back into the reckoning. Shikhar Dhawan, his replacement, grabbed his chances in Sri Lanka with centuries in two of the three Tests while KL Rahul is India’s No. 1 Test opener. For Vijay to re-establish himself as the first-choice opener, he must show both fitness and form over the next two months for the team management to even consider bringing him into the XI ahead of Dhawan.
Parthiv, Jayant and Karun all featured in more than one Test during the long home season last year, and each of them did everything that was asked of him even while being well aware that the stint was going to be no more than stop-gap. Parthiv is clearly next in the pecking order behind Wriddhiman Saha for the wicketkeeper-batsman’s slot in the longer version, and while the middle order is somewhat cramped with Rohit Sharma back to full fitness, Nair has no option but to stack up the runs and bide his time. Jayant, who went out of favour towards the end of the home season, will also be mindful of stacking up the numbers to remain in the consciousness of the national selectors, who face a delicate balancing act across formats over the next several months.
Several of the 45 players in the three teams played recently for India A on their tour of South Africa, and therefore are coming off decent long-form exposure. Red, Green and Blue clearly doesn’t have the same charm as North, South, West, East and Central; if anything, that might encourage individualism rather than teamwork because there is no real identity to any of these teams. But that is probably inevitable given that the tournament itself has lost much of its sheen in the changing milieu of Indian cricket.
Last year’s pink-ball experiment didn’t really throw up any significant results. The Duleep Trophy only went day-night then as the BCCI, ill-advisedly, first announced that at least one home Test of 13 last season would be played under lights, only to backtrack given how little testing had been done of the behaviour of the pink-ball in dew-laden Indian winters. It’s an indication of how time stands still for no one that three principal performers then – Gambhir, Yuvraj and Mayank Agarwal – don’t figure in the 45 for this year’s face-off.
Abhinav Mukund, who made a stellar 81 on his Test comeback in Galle in July and is scheduled to lead out India Red against India Green in the opening game in Lucknow, is likely to miss at least that fixture through illness. Dinesh Karthik, Abhinav’s Tamil Nadu mate, is set to take over as captain against the Parthiv-led Green. Suresh Raina, desperately trying to work his way back into contention, is the captain of the India Blue team, which will open its campaign on September 13 against India Red in Kanpur. Blue and Green will meet in the final league tie, also in Kanpur, from September 19 before the tournament returns to Lucknow for the five-day final, from September 25.
September 7-10: India Red v India Green (Lucknow)
September 13-16: India Red v India Blue (Kanpur)
September 19-22: India Green v India Blue (Kanpur)
September 25-29: Final (Lucknow)