It’s been 10 months since competitive cricket was last played on Indian soil. The coronavirus pandemic-forced lockdowns pushed the sporting action into isolation. Bilateral cricket series were cancelled and the world’s biggest T20 league – the Indian Premier League (IPL) was pushed to the UAE. It’s been a long wait.
The last competitive match played in India was the Ranji Trophy final between Saurashtra and Bengal which finished on 13 March. Almost every big cricketing nation has already welcomed the sport back to its homeland in some form or the other. And now with things slowly settling down, the cricket-mad India is also finally set to welcome action back on its shores with the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy all set to kickstart the Indian domestic season.
Under watchful eyes, strict rules, and inside bio-bubbles, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy 2020-21 will get underway on 10 January. 38 teams will battle out for the trophy, split into a total of six groups — five Elite and one Plate. The five elite groups will consist of six teams each while the Plate consists of eight teams. This is a change from last season where the teams were divided into five groups with three of them accommodating eight teams while two consisting of seven.
The format has also changed with the Super League stage scrapped and replaced by knockouts (starting with quarter-finals) straight after the group stage. The top-ranked team from each group will qualify for the knock-outs along with the next two teams in Elite groups with the most points.
Five venues – Mumbai, Indore, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai will form biosecure hubs for the group stage while cricket will return to Ahmedabad after five years as the refurbished Motera Stadium will host the knock-outs of the tournament to warm-up before getting ready to welcome International cricket after six years as they host visiting England for two tests and five T20Is.
The return of domestic cricket amidst myriad challenges will be a huge shot in the arm for the Indian cricketers who have been starved of onfield action (especially the non-IPL players) for such a long stretch. The Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament has been through a roller-coaster ride in the last few years, with its relevance being questioned time and again. The tournament has hardly been about the teams, it’s been mostly about the individuals. And that’s where it will again gain a lot of attention this time around.
With the IPL auctions, England series, and the 14th edition of IPL on the horizon, the tournament is all about hope, opportunity, audition, and comeback. The Indian team might be playing in Australia but the tournament won’t be short of star attractions with the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Dinesh Karthik, Krunal Pandya forming vital cogs of their respective state sides.
Anxiety, excitement, relief — the tournament will be filled with mixed emotions as players look to get back onto the field after a long break, improve, and aim to enter the franchise and selectors’ radar. Alternately, it will be a busy time for the franchise talent scouts who will have their telescopes and microscopes glued to their eyes.
For players who weren’t a part of the IPL 2020, it will be a challenge to get back onto the field and manage a smooth transition after the break. These are the players who might not have had the privilege of external support systems (for physical and mental guidance) which the IPL players had right through via their franchises.
A few of those who were on the field will be knocking on the selectors’ door for the T20 series against England in March. For the likes of Suryakumar Yadav, who again hugely impressed in IPL 2020 and has been consistently performing in the domestic circuit and IPL, it’s a chance to finally break down that door.
Yadav’s strokeplay and temperament in the IPL epitomised his transformed personality. He will be leading the Mumbai side and looking to bring back some of its lost charms. His Mumbai Indians teammate Ishan Kishan will be leading Jharkhand and has been in and out of the selection radar. He had a breakthrough IPL 2020 ending as Mumbai Indians’ highest run-getter where his flamboyance and versatility caught the eyeballs. And with competition for the wicket-keeping spots heating up, he could make a case for the England T20 series.
Sanju Samson, as always, has sparkled in bits and pieces. He was a part of the Indian T20 team in Australia. But with Samson, it’s always a case of him standing at the edge of the precipice with inconsistencies being his biggest enemy. He will captain the Kerala side and would be looking to lead from the front and stay in contention for a spot in that T20 side.
It will be important for Delhi captain Shikhar Dhawan to continue performing with the competition getting intense in the Indian opening department. With KL Rahul in red-hot form and Rohit Sharma an almost permanent fixture in the starting eleven, Dhawan who had a brilliant IPL 2020, ending as second-highest run-getter with 618 runs from 17 matches at 44.14, would need to keep continuously impressing to stay in contention.
The tournament isn’t just about auditions, it’s about players looking to regain their lost places as well. The likes of Kedar Jadhav, Krunal Pandya, Shivam Dube, Dinesh Karthik, Rahul Chahar, Axar Patel, Vijay Shankar, would look to grab the selectors’ attention again with one eye on the back-to-back World T20s.
Then there are new players who would be looking to get into the range of selectors’ radar. Some of the youngsters had an impressive IPL and they would be looking to further enhance their credentials to get into the elite league. Devdutt Paddikal of Karnataka will be in the spotlight again. He endeared the cricketing world with his languid and confident strokeplay in the IPL 2020 and earned high praise from his RCB captain Virat Kohli. He was the highest run-getter in last season’s Mushtaq Ali tournament and would look to carry forward that momentum from the IPL.
The likes of Ravi Bishnoi, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Kartik Tyagi, Arshdeep Singh, Rahul Chahar, Abdul Samad were all impressive in IPL 2020 and gave a glimpse of their talent. The seasoned campaigners in Nitish Rana, Harshal Patel, Rahul Tewatia would also be aiming to make their cases stronger.
It’s a chance for the U-19 cricketers to take their learnings forward and further their development and improvement rubbing shoulders with experienced teammates. Yashasvi Jaiswal didn’t have the best of times in the IPL and he would be looking to correct the wrongs and get back on track. It will be another steep learning curve for Priyam Garg who captained the India U-19 side. It will be a big moment for the 20-year-old as he will be captaining the UP side and leading the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Suresh Raina, Karn Sharma and others.
Arjun Tendulkar has made it to the senior Mumbai squad for the first time and it will be a huge learning experience for the 21-year-old whether he makes it to the playing eleven or not. It’s also a chance for Ishant Sharma, who missed the Australia tour due to a side strain, to prove his fitness and get back into the groove ahead of the England Test series. Bhuvneshwar Kumar will also be looking to strengthen his bid for a comeback to the Indian side by gaining some rhythm post the thigh injury he suffered in the IPL that ruled him out of the tournament after four matches and then the Australia tour.
Nostalgia will add to the cluster of emotions. Suresh Raina, who retired from international cricket last year, will return to competitive cricket and represent Uttar Pradesh. He returned back home from IPL due to personal reasons and would be looking to get some game time ahead of another IPL season, while the fans would be hoping to see the glimpses of the Chinna Thala’s old vintage self.
The biggest comeback story though will be of another 2011 World Cup-winning member, S Sreesanth, who will be making a comeback to competitive cricket after seven years. Sreesanth, whose spot-fixing ban ended last year, has been included in the Kerala squad. He is 37 and on his last legs but it’s one step at a time for the pacer and if he does get to wear that Kerala Jersey, you can be rest assured there will be no shortage of emotions on the field.
As far as the teams are concerned, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Mumbai with their squad depths and talents are the heavyweights. Karnataka are the reigning champions and will enter the tournament on the back of consecutive titles. They will, however, be without their stars in KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal who are on national duty, and the injured Manish Pandey but they have enough depth in the squad to defend the title this time around as well. They have also had decent match practice having played two KSCA inter-club tournaments. The grouping of the teams has been done on the basis of previous year’s Ranji Trophy rankings and the top five teams have been segregated across five Elite groups.
Most of the strong teams will play their matches at home, Mumbai, Bengal, Gujarat, Baroda, Vidarbha will play in Mumbai, Kolkata, Vadodara, and Indore respectively. While Saurashtra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi will have to play in Indore, Kolkata and Mumbai respectively. All the plate group teams will play in Chennai.
The Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy brings a lot of hope amidst the pandemic gloom. It could be a testing ground for the England series and IPL 2021 which will be hosted in India. And it might end up being the first and last domestic competition this year with time and logistical challenges threatening to wipe out the rest of the domestic calendar.
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