The Irani Cup could rekindle Rest of India skipper Mayank Agarwal’s hopes of returning to the national setup when his side takes on 2021-22 Ranji Trophy champions Madhya Pradesh in the season-ending domestic tournament beginning here Wednesday.
Though the Irani Cup has lost much of its significance in the last 15 years as most national players are always on the move, the tournament, at an individual level, is important for Agarwal, especially in the backdrop of KL Rahul’s dipping form.
Agarwal, a stylish opener, was dropped from the India team last year after a poor series in South Africa.
However, with Rahul enduring a poor run of form and Agarwal ending the Ranji season at the top of the scoring charts with 990 runs, he could return to the national fold at some stage during the year.
While the squad for the last two Tests against Australia has been selected, another good performance from Agarwal in the season-ending first-class tournament could make him a potential replacement for Rahul for the World Test Championship final in London if India qualify. He could also be seriously considered for the tour of West Indies.
In the context of the Irani Cup match, Rest of India remain firm favourites against a depleted Madhya Pradesh in the absence of their top batter Rajat Patidar and regular captain Aditya Srivastava.
But the likes of pacer Avesh Khan, all-rounder Venkatesh Iyer, left-arm spinner Kumar Kartikeya and batter Yash Dubey are no pushovers in the Madhya Pradesh side.
If Agarwal and his likely opening partner Abhimanyu Easwaran are the two men on the national selectors’ radar, there is another aspect that will be closely monitored by Shiv Sunder Das and Co — the next generation of spin bowlers.
Ravichandran Ashwin is 36 and Ravindra Jadeja 34. Both are still going strong in Indian conditions with the latter having a like-for-like cover in Axar Patel.
However, a look at India’s next generation of spin-bowling resources paints a grim picture.
There is no clear off-break successor to Ashwin. Since Amit Mishra last played for India, there haven’t been any wrist spinners who have come close to Test team selection.
Pulkit Narang, an off-spinner discarded by the Delhi Ranji team a few years back, has got into the ROI squad on the back of nearly 30 scalps this season. A student of Virat Kohli’s childhood coach Rajkumar Sharma, Narang, despite his limited range of skills, has been an India nets regular during the series against Australia.
Ashwin’s cover for the longest time, Haryana’s Jayant Yadav, hasn’t done anything of note in the past few seasons to be considered.
Among left-arm options, India A regular Saurabh Kumar has stayed in the mix, while Rahul Chahar’s injuries and paucity of options have led to leg-spinner Mayank Markande’s selection in the ROI side.
Among pacers, Mukesh Kumar and a fit-again Navdeep Saini will keep the selectors interested along with the under-rated wicketkeeper-batter Upendra Yadav, who many consider better than Kona Bharat.
This year’s Irani Cup is unique in the sense that the pending match — between Rest of India and 2019-20 Ranji champions Saurashtra — was played at the start of the season, while the game between ROI and 2021-22 Ranji champions Madhya Pradesh is being played as a domestic season finale.
This was necessitated due to the Covid-19 pandemic as the tournament could not be held during the 2020-21 season.
Irani Cup used to be a premier domestic tournament till the early part of 2000 and was considered a trial game for pathway into the national squad.
However, after the concept of regular India A shadow tours became the norm, Rest of India’s one-off game doesn’t mean much in the context of senior team selections.
The matches are now more like trial games for testing the bench strength and, at times, check if some out-of-favour India stars are ready to script a redemption act or not.