It’s still unclear whether India will play a limited-overs series against Pakistan this month before they head Down Under for five ODIs and three T20 internationals in the second week of January. But this uncertainty has an upside to it if you care for Indian domestic cricket.
This unusual winter break has made all the big names free and available for the Vijay Hazare Trophy. From MS Dhoni to Virat Kohli (not playing the first match) and Ravichandran Ashwin — India’s premier 50-overs domestic meet starts tomorrow with a stellar star-cast.
When Dhoni last played for Jharkhand, IPL still sounded like an audacious idea. It was the summer of 2007 and India had been walking wounded after a dismal World Cup performance. Eight seasons later, Dhoni is now a cult, India’s most successful captain ever. He has won everything that cricket can offer. The 34-year-old is now in the autumn of his career. He has retired from Test cricket and plays only in the shorter formats. Returning to his roots will allow him quality game-time ahead of the Australian tour and the World T20 that India will host in March-April next year.
Dhoni, however, is not leading Jharkhand in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. His state association had offered him the captaincy but Dhoni was reluctant. He’s happy to play under India fast bowler Varun Aaron. “It’s sensible, because he (Dhoni) is coming back to the state team after a long time and doesn’t know all the boys. Varun plays with us and it’s easier for him. But Dhoni will always be there as the anchor,” said the team’s middle-order batsman Saurabh Tiwary, speaking to The Indian Express.
Are the youngsters in the side overawed by his presence? “Not at all. He has trained with us for two days and made himself very approachable. Even the youngest member of our team can communicate with him freely. His presence gives us a massive boost. It makes us one of the favourites to win the tournament. Also, for all of us, it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn from him,” Tiwary said.
According to him, the team is still to decide whether Dhoni will don the big gloves as well or play purely as a batsman. Jharkhand have a reserve ‘keeper in Sumit Kumar. Jharkhand are placed in Group B along with Karnataka, Railways, Gujarat, J & K, Kerala and Haryana. They will play their first match against J & K at Alur tomorrow.
Delhi are in Group C and will host Baroda in their opening game. The squad under Gautam Gambhir looks intimidating with Shikhar Dhawan opening the innings and Ishant Sharma leading the pace attack. And there’s every possibility that Virat Kohli might be available from the second match onwards. The captain is excited to lead a star-studded team. “It’s a no-brainer that top players playing Vijay Hazare (Trophy) will give huge fillip to the tournament stakeholders — players, fans, associations, BCCI. When I started playing for Delhi, I had the privilege of observing top cricketers. Even things like arranging my kit bag I learnt there, besides a lot more important things. So it’s an advantage to everyone,” Gambhir told this paper.
Rahane takes a break
Mumbai, in Group A, will be without Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma for the first two matches. The former has opted for a break, while Rohit is busy preparing for his wedding. But with Tamil Nadu and Punjab both in their group, this is a fantastic opportunity for the likes of Shreyas Iyer and Shardul Thakur to test their skill against the very best. Tamil Nadu will be led by Ashwin and for Iyer, who has scored 930 runs at 71.53 in eight Ranji Trophy group league matches, the challenge will be to prove his mettle against the best off-spinner in the world. For medium pacer Thakur — 29 wickets at 25.34 in eight Ranji Trophy matches this season — bowling to Murali Vijay will be a big test.
As for Punjab, Harbhajan Singh has returned to India’s limited-overs set-up but focus will be on Yuvraj Singh, who hasn’t played for the national team since April 2014. All-rounder Gurkeerat Singh, who was part of the Indian team for the ODI series against South Africa, would also like to present a strong case for himself.
The other four teams in this group, Assam, Rajasthan, Services and Hyderabad, are good enough to cause an upset.
Karnataka in Group B have become stronger, thanks to KL Rahul and Stuart Binny’s presence. They will try to prove a point after their shock exit from the Ranji Trophy. In Group D, Bengal have Wriddhiman Saha, who is back from the India duty. Mohammad Shami, too, is expected to play from the third match onwards. The fast bowler has recovered from a knee surgery. He now has to get back his match fitness. Saurashtra and Uttar Pradesh are the other two high-profile teams in this group. Saurashtra have Cheteshwar Pujara and an in-form Ravindra Jadeja. Uttar Pradesh can boast of Suresh Raina and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Both, however, are said to be doubtful starters for their first game.
The BCCI has changed the tournament format this term, doing away with the zonal qualification. Twenty-seven teams have been divided into three groups of seven and one group of six with top two sides from each group getting into the knockouts. Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Alur and Rajkot will host the matches.