“Irani Cup and Duleep Trophy should be the curtain raiser for the season as they are the most important tournaments where players would like to display their form and fitness to stake a claim in the Indian squad for the season ahead,” Dillip Vengsarkar was quoted as saying to Mid-Day on Monday (11 February). “How does it help to schedule the Irani game just after the Ranji Trophy? It makes no sense to me and it defeats the very purpose. BCCI’s approach to get done with tournaments is questionable.”
The other side of the argument is that playing the Irani Cup immediately after three rigourous months of Ranji Trophy gives players a chance to continue their good form from the season, on the basis of which they have been selected, to make another case for themselves in front of the national selectors. Irani Cup as a curtain raiser would mean the performers of the previous season may not have warmed up yet to make the best use of the opportunity. Meanwhile, another set of observers feel that the concept of Rest of India (RoI) playing against the Ranji Trophy champions is outdated because no longer do the country’s top cricketers make themselves available for the contest.
Even as the context and timing of Irani Cup continues to be debated, the five-day affair chugs along season after season, bringing its share of excitement and relevance. The 57th edition will be played between Vidarbha, who successfully defended the Ranji Trophy after beating Saurashtra by 78 runs in a keenly-contested final, and RoI in Nagpur from 12 February.
Expectedly, a lot of focus will be on Wasim Jaffer, who has said that he will decide his future after this fixture. The first batsman to touch the 1,000-run mark in a Ranji season twice, he will turn 41 on the scheduled last day of this match and unsurprisingly is on the brink of a few more milestones. With 1,294 runs against his name, he is the highest run-getter in Irani Cup and will have two more innings to push the bar further. One of the three players to have represented three teams in the Irani Cup, he will equal Ashok Mankad’s tally of 13 matches for most appearances. He has so far scored three hundreds, and needs one more in potentially two innings to join Vengsarkar and Gundappa Viswanath at the top of the list.
Jaffer also set a new record last season when he made a graceful 286 — the highest individual score in Irani Cup history. It took Vidarbha to 800 for 7 — the highest team total. Then Rajneesh Gurbani and Aditya Sarwate took seven wickets between them as Vidarbha prevailed on the basis of first-innings lead.
The game, though, is best remembered for Hanuma Vihari’s rearguard effort that eventually paved the way for him to become a Test cricketer. RoI were struggling at 98/6 after Ravichandran Ashwin’s departure, and were staring at a possible follow-on when Vihari and Jayant Yadav put on 216 runs to salvage pride. Vihari was the last wicket to fall, having made 183 laced with 23 fours and three sixes. More importantly, the way he constructed 477-minute-long innings, taking the lower-order batsmen into confidence, made an impression. Now that he has played four Test matches, the expectations will be more from Vihari.
Karun Nair led RoI the last time, but is not in the team on this occasion. Unless the selectors have spoken to him privately explaining the situation, it indicates that he has gone down in the pecking order. Ajinkya Rahane, who has an impressive Irani record with 709 runs at 78.77, will lead RoI this time. Back after a holiday in Jordan, this will be his first Irani appearance since he made 83 and had a partnership of 132 with Jaffer for Mumbai a month before his Test debut in 2013.
Now that MSK Prasad, the chairman of the national selection committee, has told that Rahane is in contention for a spot in the World Cup 2019 squad, this game holds even more significance for him. Sure, the format is different, but any time spent in the middle is valuable.
At the other end of the spectrum is Shreyas Iyer, who not long ago was auditioned for the No 4 spot in the ODI squad but is currently nowhere near the radar. He has been vocal about his confusing state of mind, and a good knock for RoI could only do him good. He, Rahane, Vihari, Mayank Agarwal and Ishan Kishan form the batting core, and two, or even one, from the young trio of Anmolpreet Singh, Snell Patel — who became the first non-Mumbai wicketkeeper-batsman to score a century in the Ranji final — could fill up the other slot depending on the team composition they choose.
Surprisingly, Jaydev Unadkat, the Saurashtra skipper, does not find himself in the mix. It means the bowling responsibilities lie with Ronit More, the Karnataka pacer, and Dharmendrasinh Jadeja, the left-arm spinner who finished as second-highest wicket-taker in the recently-concluded season with 59 wickets. Krishnappa Gowtham and Rahul Chahar are the other two spinners, and Ankit Rajpoot, Tanveer-ul-Haq and Sandeep Warrier complete the pace bowling department.
From Vidarbha’s perspective, they have a golden chance to be the third team, after Mumbai who have done it multiple times and Karnataka, to retain Irani Cup. The association has held back the Ranji celebrations because of the Irani Cup, and the focus will be to go all out and stamp their dominance. It will be a fitting farewell for Jaffer if he wishes to call it a day
As much as the national selectors will be keeping an eye on the RoI players, they will also be observing Umesh Yadav, Sarwate, Rajneesh Gurbani and other Vidarbha players. No matter who wins, if the last few editions of Irani Cup are anything to go by, then the fans will get to witness a gripping contest.