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Domestic roundup: A shot in the arm for bowlers

By Thaleel
March 2 2005

Five seasons ago, the Duleep Trophy was decided in the sort of farce that would have had most local bowlers ripping their hair out in agony. Two semi-finals, one final - three draws, zero results.

At the same time, in December 1999, an Indian lineup toured Australia and was comprehensively thrashed in a manner that left even the Australian press short of hyperbole to describe it all. The likes of MSK Prasad, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Devang Gandhi and Vijay Bharadwaj had cut their teeth on such wickets designed to drive bowlers to despair, and once they travelled abroad with more than respectable domestic averages, had their limitations exposed brutally by the slightest bit of bounce and movement.

Things seem to have changed for the better, and by quite a distance - Rahul Dravid said after the third test against Australia at Nagpur that such wickets should be used more regularly in domestic cricket - and it seems as if his words have been taken to heart. The first two Duleep Trophy games of this season's tournament both ended in three days, only three team scores in eight innings saw the 200-run mark crossed, with the highest score being North Zone's 208 against West. All of a sudden, the tide seems to have turned in the bowlers' favor - evidenced by Ashish Nehra blasting through West Zone in Lucknow for figures of 6/57, JP Yadav taking match figures of 10/63 at Gwalior, and Shib Shankar Paul getting figures of 6/50 in Central Zone's first innings.

Not surprisingly, cricket in India's been given a shot in the arm. Interest in domestic games seems to be gradually picking up, with people starting to realize that tickets to a Ranji game will not mean one team scoring 600 in the first two days, and the other repeating the feat as the game peters out into a draw - and while young quicks like Gagandeep Singh and SS Paul are standing up, delivering and sending the right signals to the selectors, the flat track bullies are starting to get separated from those batsmen who won't end up looking like deer in headlights against a Shaun Pollock or Jason Gillespie.

The Duleep so far - Round 1:

After seven innings of low scores in two games between East Zone and Central, and West and North, Yuvraj Singh and Gautam Gambhir broke the pattern with some superb strokeplay. Gambhir has been in need of a few runs with the Pakistan tour closing in, and with Yuvraj in need of something to make an even stronger case for his selection for the upcoming series, the two delivered superbly.

North Zone had been set a target of 208, looking all the more imposing after the previous three innings had seen scores of 201, 196 and 201 - but a Yuvraj's sparkling 114-ball ton from Yuvraj and a more sedate 79 from Gambhir - both unbeaten - saw West start the tournament off in the worst possible way as North rampaged to a 9 wicket win.

A similar run of scores, but without the fourth innings batting blaze, marked the East/Central clash at Gwalior as the seamers dominated, with only one wicket in the entire game falling to a spinner. However, other performances came under the spotlight there with wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni failing to make an impact with the bat, after a few productive knocks in the Deodhar and Challenger Trophy - but Dhoni continued to make a case for his selection with eight catches in the match. With an average of 49.33 from seven knocks in the Deodhar and Challenger games a few weeks ago, and a strike rate well over 100, Karthik's place in the test squad will be under some pressure - while Dhoni seems to now be the firm favorite for the keeper's spot in the one-dayers ahead against Pakistan.

Looking ahead to Round 2:

However, with the tests to come first, all eyes will be on the South/West clash at Hyderabad - and on one man in particular. Sachin Tendulkar has declared himself fully fit for the first time in a while, and will lead a full strength West Zone lineup against a fairly strong South Zone. The clash between the likes of Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, Balaji, Karthik, Y Venugopal Rao and Sriram and a powerhouse lineup of Tendulkar, Pathan, Zaheer, Agarkar, Jaffer, Jadhav and Ramesh Powar should hopefully draw a number of fans with the quality of cricket anticipated - and one can only hope that at Hyderabad, the trend on sporting pitches continues with some of the bowlers and batsmen on each side.

Meanwhile, in a move that should help plenty of Bangladesh's youngsters adapt to first-class cricket, the VCA at Nagpur will host the clash between East Zone and the Bangladesh Cricket Board XI. Another name-studded clash should follow, with the likes of Ashraful, Talha Jubair, Alok Kapali and Rajin Saleh in the BCB's squad - while Ganguly leads a fairly strong East Zone lineup, bolstered by the likes of SS Paul, Ranadeb Bose and MS Dhoni - all of whom will be looking to make a name for themselves.

The batsmen though will have their work cut out with the game being held at the VCA in Nagpur which seems to have retained all the bowler-friendly qualities evident when India played Australia there. In three Plate group Ranji games held there, the 200-run mark was only crossed twice, with only three batsmen making half-centuries on that wicket. Yet, with such wickets and the inclusion of overseas teams in the Duleep Trophy - first England's Academy/A team last season, and now a Bangladesh XI - plenty of improvements are there to be seen in domestic cricket in India.

Now if the BCCI could advertise the game more, get a few more of the big names to play and promote the domestic brand even further to the public - it could do a whole lot more for the domestic scene in India. With more and more players standing out in more even contests between bat and ball, the stage is set for a new boom in the domestic game - all the BCCI has to do is just tap into the available market and get their focus away from the bank accounts briefly. Let's hope it's not beyond them.

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