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The Rediff Special/Ashish Magotra and Faisal Shariff
How the challengers fared
September 16, 2003
Every edition of the Challenger series brings about a sense of excitement and curiosity about the domestic scene. The cognoscente is anxious to see which greenhorn will stand up and stake claim for the national colour. It gives the India hopefuls a chance to make an early impression on the selectors besides allowing them to prove their mettle along with the best in the business. There are some who use the season's opener to cement their spots in the team while there are others who make a bid to break in.
This Challenger had both categories in abundance. Indeed, Indian cricket never had it better. There was enough competition for the bowling and opening batting slots to keep the players and the selectors working overtime.
The BCCI chief often claims that the Indian team's bench strength is a feather in his cap. How strong India's bench strength is will only be known during the course of upcoming international season. But a look at the performances of the 'challengers' in the just-concluded season opener could be an ideal indicator.
A look at how the players fared:
There was a time when we were hunting for openers; today there are too many contenders for the twin-throne. Though the one-dayer slots are settled, with the Sachin Tendulkar-Virender Sehwag combine and Sourav Ganguly keen on getting back at the top of the order, Gautam Gambhir was the lone opener to make an impression. Sanjay Bangar was solid as always. Wasim Jaffer, S S Das and Satyajit Parab were disappointing, though they will get more chances in the longer version of the game to stake their claim for the slot.
Batting in the middle-order
Mohammad Kaif and Dinesh Mongia felt the heat from the chasing pack of V V S Laxman, Hemang Badani, Sridharan Sriram and Rohan Gavaskar.
Kaif failed to return to form after an ordinary run in the English county circuit. Only 77 runs in three innings is not a true indicator of his talent. He needs a good score in the side games against the touring New Zealanders to affirm his place in the middle-order. Mongia scored a century and struck the ball well throughout that innings against India 'A' though he was dropped when on zero.
Of the chasing pack, Laxman looked good, but failed to translate his innings into anything substantial. Badani, Sriram and Gavaskar thrived through the tournament. Badani scored two fifties, 73 and an unbeaten 61, but both the knocks came in losing causes.
Sriram (176 runs in three matches) and Gavaskar (145 runs in three matches), who shared decisive partnerships for India 'A', were the surprise packages of the tournament. On two occasions they rescued India 'A' from the doldrums. For his efforts, Gavaskar was rewarded with a place in the Rest of India team for the Irani Trophy, but Sriram will have to bide his time.
After the final on Sunday, Tendulkar said Sriram deserved the man of the match award instead of him. Perhaps, that was the best endorsement for the Tamil Nadu southpaw's showing in the tournament.
With Rahul Dravid not keen on continuing as wicketkeeper, the position was the subject of intense speculation all through the series. Parthiv Patel, Ajay Ratra and Thilak Naidu were the leading contenders for the slot.
Patel maintained his high standards behind the stumps, and his batting, considered to be his weak point, showed much improvement.
Ratra had an indifferent tournament, with very limited opportunities.
Among the three, Naidu is, without doubt, the best bat. A brilliant, unbeaten 47 against India 'A' made coach John Wright sit up and take notice of his potential. He remains an exciting prospect for the one-dayers with his ability to tonk the ball around and run brilliantly between the wickets. However, he ranks behind Patel and Ratra behind the stumps, though he is still head and shoulders above Dravid.
These are times when you need a good batsman who can keep decently. Adam Gilchrist, Mark Boucher and, until recently, Alec Stewart have all made serious contributions with the bat in their team's success.
Anil Kumble is not what he used to be. True, there was nothing in the wicket for the bowlers throughout the tourney, but most batsmen were able to read him easily. One would have expected better from this veteran. He conceded 170 runs in three matches (28 overs) and claimed six wickets compared to Murali Kartik, whose 18 overs cost 84 runs.
Karthik bowled accurately and so did Sairaj Bahutule, but the question to be asked is: are they ready for the Tests? We will never know till they are throw into the water.
Sarandeep Singh (21 overs for 133 runs) and Ramesh Powar should be happy just being picked for the tournament.
Medium pace bowlers
Ajit Agarkar's batting ability gives him a slight edge over his competitors for a one-day slot, but in terms of bowling ability Lakshmipathy Balaji, Aavishkar Salvi, Irfan Pathan Junior and Amit Bhandari proved they are his equals.
Balaji claimed the only five-wicket haul of the tournament while Salvi, Pathan and Bhandari were good in patches, if not spectacularly consistent.
Keeping in mind the upcoming tour of Australia, there's sure going to be stiff competition for the fast bowlers' slot.