Rajkot, September 30
Sandwiched between the World Cup warm-up matches and the opener, the Irani Trophy, to be played between Ranji Trophy champions Saurashtra and Rest of India here from Sunday, might appear a rather meaningless sideshow.
But a clutch of stars, including veteran Cheteshwar Pujara and Hanuma Vihari, will be eager to remain in the range of selectors' radar with big performances ahead of a slew of important assignments scheduled for India.
None will be keener than Pujara to construct an edifice of runs in one his favourite venues, the SCA Stadium. Pujara's Test career seemed to have hit a roadblock after his omission from the tour to the West Indies in July.
The 35-year-old was in fine fettle for Sussex in English county cricket, but he failed to replicate that form in the World Test Championships Final against Australia.
India are set to tour South Africa later this year, and they will host England early next year, and Pujara will certainly not want to miss out on those chances.
But the Saurashtra man perforce has to conjure his best in the Irani Trophy against a capable RoI attack comprising pacers Vidwath Kaverappa, Navdeep Saini along with spinners B. Sai Sudarshan and Shams Mulani.
Saurashtra captain Jaydev Unadkat too will be eyeing a meaty outing to boost his chances of maintaining a place in the Test side.
The left-arm pacer was recalled to India's squad for the trip to the Windies on the back of his brilliant form in the 2022-23 domestic circuit, but he went wicketless in 26 overs across three innings against the Caribbeans.
So, it is imperative for Unadkat to come up with a wicket-rich effort here to keep himself away from the jostle of younger pacers like Kaverappa.
Vihari, who will lead Irani title holders Rest of India, is also in need of some big runs to remind the bigwigs of his presence. Vihari was unable to break into the India side after the one-off Test against England at Birmingham last year.
However, the 29-year-old had successfully led South Zone to Duleep Trophy title in Bengaluru this July, and he had also made crucial knocks of 63 and 42 in the final.
Vihari would like to build on that effort in the Irani Trophy to place himself in a position from where he can look to regain his middle-order slot in the Indian team, which is currently occupied by Ajinkya Rahane.
Rahane's return to Test cricket against the West Indies was not exactly a blazing one, and Vihari has reasons to believe that there is a creek for him to widen.
Then there are usual suspects like Mumbai man Sarfaraz Khan and Karnataka opener Mayank Agarwal searching for an opening.
They have scored heavy runs in the last domestic season, and in fact, Agarwal was the highest run-getter with 990 runs.
However, it will be tough especially for Agarwal because Shubman Gill and Yashasvi Jaiswal have firmly entrenched themselves in the India scheme of things.
Rest of India: Hanuma Vihari (captain), K S Bharat, Mayank Agarwal, Yash Dhull, Shams Mulani, Sai Sudarshan, Sarfaraz Khan, Pulkit Narang, Saurabh Kumar, Yash Dayal, Navdeep Saini, Vidwath Kaverappa, Akash Deep, Rohan Kunnummal, Dhruv Jurel.
Saurashtra: Jaydev Unadkat (captain), Cheteshwar Pujara, Sheldon Jackson, Arpit Vasavada, Harvik Desai, Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, Prerak Mankad, Chirag Jani, Jay Gohil, Parth Bhut, Vishvarajsinh Jadeja, Samarth Vyas, Yuvrajsinh Dodiya, Kushang Patel, Snell Patel, Devang Karamta.
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