Wriddhiman Saha, East Zone's captain and wicketkeeper, has been in the form of his life. (Getty Images)
The best cricket talent of the Indian domestic circuit will be on display when five teams battle it out in the inter-zonal Deodhar Trophy, starting with the quarter-final between Central Zone and South Zone on Friday in Mohali.
The winners of this match will meet North Zone, who are already in the semi-finals, on Sunday in Dharamshala, the venue for the final of the four-day competition. The first semi-final will be held in Mohali between East and West.
The squads for the five zones have already been selected and comprise players who have performed well in the season. Uttar Pradesh's Piyush Chawla has been given the reins of Central's 16-man squad. The batting responsibility will rest on the shoulders of veteran batsman Mohammad Kaif (UP), who is coming into the tournament after two half-centuries in the recently concluded Vijay Hazare Trophy. Although Ashok Menaria missed most of the season due to an injury, the young Rajasthan batsman could be a vital cog in Central's middle order along with his state mate Robin Bist, the highest run-getter of the Ranji Trophy season.
There will also be a two-way tussle between Naman Ojha (Madhya Pradesh) and Mahesh Rawat (Railways) for the wicketkeeper's spot. The pace department will be led by Railways' Krishnakant Upadhyay, who picked up 10 wickets in his debut List A season. TP Sudhindra (MP) has also taken the highest number of wickets - 40 in seven matches - in the Ranji Trophy. Chawla and Jalaj Saxena (MP) will play as spinning allrounders, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a medium pace bowler from UP, will also be handy with his power-hitting down the order.
The experienced Dinesh Karthik has been chosen as South's skipper. He too is in form with 105 and 137 against Andhra and Karnataka in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. His Tamil Nadu team-mate Srikkanth Anirudha scored three half-centuries with a best of 94 against Andhra. Abhinav Mukund, the most consistent TN player, would like to repeat his Ranji success where he made 872 runs in nine matches.
Robin Uthappa's consecutive centuries - against Hyderabad (120) and Andhra (104) - couldn't help Karnataka go the distance, but he will play a key role in the South's top order. The new kid on the block, Ronit More, has already made ripples in his debut season. His 15 wickets, which included 6 for 18 against Goa and 5 for 31 against Hyderabad, were the talking point of the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Prasanth Parameswaran, the Kerala paceman, has also been rated highly by the experts of the game.
Wriddhiman Saha, East's captain and wicketkeeper, has been in the form of his life, hitting six consecutive half-centuries in seven matches in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. And though the name of Bengal allrounder Laxmi Ratan Shukla was missing from the 15-member squad picked earlier, his whirlwind unbeaten century, along with 4 for 38, in the final of the Vijay Hazare Trophy against Mumbai, made the selectors pick him as the 16th man of the squad. A nustup Majumdar, another Bengal player who impressed with his solid technique recently, will again be crucial for East's cause. Along with them, Natraj Behera and Biplab Samantray (both from Orissa), Ishank Jaggi and Saurabh Tiwary (both from Jharkhand) will add solidity to the batting. Just as More and Upadhyay did for Karnataka and Railways this season, the performance of Bengal medium pacer Shami Ahmed (11 wickets in six List A matches) is also worth noting.
The 15-man West squad will be led by Parthiv Patel and contains a few young faces who have the potential to represent the national team. Ajinkya Rahane has already been a part of the Indian team and this could be another opportunity for the right-hander to get in the selectors' reckoning. Ankit Bawne, a 19-year-old from Maharashtra, was among the runs in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, scoring 117 and an unbeaten 93 against Saurashtra and Mumbai respectively.
Cheteshwar Pujara has been troubled enough by injuries but his form will be crucial not only for his zone but also for the future of Indian cricket too. Suryakumar Yadav is another batsman rated highly in Mumbai cricket circles. Another good performance here will certainly help in gain the selectors' attention. Munaf Patel has a point or two to prove, so he will be desperate to go on the park. Chirag Jani, the Saurashtra allrounder, will also be handy with both bat and ball. Iqbal Abdulla (Mumbai) and Kamlesh Makvana (Saurashtra) will share the spin charge.
Harbhajan Singh has been helping Punjab's cause more with the bat than ball recently. His unbeaten 79 proved crucial in the game against Maharashtra, while a 39 not out came in the losing cause against Bengal in the semis. But North will expect their skipper to shine both with the bat and ball. Seasoned campaigner Shikhar Dhawan (Delhi) is expected to give them a good start, while Paras Dogra (Himachal) should also make his mark in the middle order. Young Mandeep Singh (Punjab) would like to carry on his consistent run.
Nitin Saini, the Haryana wicketkeeper- batsman, will be eager to perform especially when Punit Bisht, despite having a good run throughout the season, has been kept as a reserve wicketkeeper. Parvinder Awana has been terrific for Delhi this season. His 16 wickets in seven matches in the Vijay Hazare Trophy proved vital in taking Delhi to the semi-finals of the competition.
South Zone: Dinesh Karthik, Ashish Reddy, Srikkanth Anirudha, Stuart Binny, Ganesh Satish, Shadab Jakati, Abhimanyu Mithun, Ronit More, Abhinav Mukund, Pragyan Ojha, Prasanth Parameswaran, AG Pradeep, Rohan Prem, Dwaraka Ravi Teja, Akshath Reddy, Robin Uthappa, Nizar Niyas, Amit Verma, Tekkami Atchuta Rao, Robert Fernandez, Prasanth Kumar, Padmanabhan Prasanth
Central Zone: Piyush Chawla (c), Naman Ojha, Ashish Yadav, Udit Birla, Robin Bist, Shailender Gehlot, Mohammad Kaif, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ashok Menaria, Urvesh Patel, Rameez Khan, Jalaj Saxena, Shivakant Shukla, TP Sudhindra, Umesh Yadav, Amol Ubarhande, Puneet Yadav, Mahesh Rawat (wk), Krishnakant Upadhyay
East Zone: Wriddhiman Saha (c/wk), Manisankar Murasingh, Abu Nechim, Kumar Deobrat, Deepak Gohain, Dheeraj Jadhav, Ishank Jaggi, Anustup Majumdar, Shahbaz Nadeem, Arnab Nandi, Natraj Behera, Govind Podder, Rana Dutta, Biplab Samantray, Shami Ahmed, Saurabh Tiwary, Laxmi Ratan Shukla
West Zone: Parthiv Patel (c/wk), Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Ankit Bawne, Priyank Kirit Panchal, Akshay Darekar, Iqbal Abdulla, Kedar Jadhav, Chirag Jani, Kamlesh Makvana, Munaf Patel, Cheteshwar Pujara, Jaydev Unadkat, Murtuja Vahora, Kshemal Waingankar, Suryakumar Yadav
North Zone: Harbhajan Singh (c), Parvinder Awana, Amitoze Singh, Rajat Bhatia, Bipul Sharma, Rishi Dhawan, Shikhar Dhawan, Paras Dogra, Manpreet Gony, Gurkeerat Singh, Mandeep Singh, Harshal Patel, Sachin Rana, Nitin Saini (wk), Yashpal Singh