Ashwin is at the head of a strong spin contingent, alongside Jayant Yadav and Shahbaz Nadeem. © BCCI

Ashwin is at the head of a strong spin contingent, alongside Jayant Yadav and Shahbaz Nadeem. © BCCI

Vidarbha have a chance to extend their fairytale run in first-class cricket when they take on a strong Rest of India side in the Irani Cup starting on Wednesday (March 14).

Vidarbha’s surge to the Ranji Trophy title was among the most heart-warming stories of the season. It was a triumph built on domestic cricket workhorses, many of whom haven’t perhaps got their due at the higher level. The climatic stages of the competition in particular showed the Vidarbha side at its absolute best with sterling individual performances blending seamlessly together to create a team greater than the sum of its parts.

Vidarbha showed great character in holding off Karnataka by just five runs in the semifinal, and then romped to a nine-wicket win against Delhi in the final. Both times, they were easily the underdogs going into the contest, but they showed that pre-match labels counted for nothing.

Heading into the Irani Cup at the VCA Stadium in Nagpur, their home ground, Vidarbha are in a similar situation. The Rest of India side has some stellar names spearheaded by R Ashwin, who has been added to the side in place of Ravindra Jadeja. India’s premier red-ball spinners have had a tag-team situation going in domestic cricket, with Ashwin having recovered from a niggle that kept him out of the Deodhar Trophy only for Jadeja to develop a side-strain, leading to the offspinner coming into the squad to replace the left-arm spinner.

Ashwin is at the head of a strong spin contingent, alongside Jayant Yadav and Shahbaz Nadeem. The batting has a distinct Karnataka flavour to it with Karun Nair, the captain, expected to form the mainstay alongside the opening duo of Mayank Agarwal and R Samarth. There is also the talented Prithvi Shaw in the mix. Among the pacers, Siddarth Kaul, Ankit Rajpoot and Navdeep Saini have all been knocking on the doors of the national side and will be looking for that breakout performance that will elevate them further.

Teams (from):

Rest of India: Karun Nair (capt), Prithvi Shaw, Abhimanyu Easwaran, R Samarth, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, KS Bharat (wk), R Ashwin, Jayant Yadav, Shahbaz Nadeem, Anmolpreet Singh, Siddarth Kaul, Ankit Rajpoot, Navdeep Saini, Atit Sheth.

Vidarbha: Faiz Fazal (capt), R Sanjay, Wasim Jaffer, Ganesh Satish (vice-capt), Apoorva Wankhade, Siddhesh Wath, Akshay Wadkar (wk), Aditya Sarwate, Akshay Karnewar, Karn Sharma, Akshay Wakhare, Umesh Yadav, Rajneesh Gurbani, Yash Thakur, Aditya Thakare, Atharva Taide.

In red-ball cricket, particularly in India, Ashwin naturally has little to prove. But as the leader of the attack, he will be conscious of the responsibility on him. For Jayant, it’s an opportunity to reiterate that the long layoff he had due to injury hasn’t affected his skills, while Nadeem is in the position of having churned out one consistent domestic season after another without getting a national call-up.

But while the Rest of India squad is strong, there are a couple of eyebrow-raising selections. Jalaj Saxena, the highest wicket-taker of the Ranji season and who scored 522 runs at 52.20, is not in the squad. Nor is Sanju Samson, who made 627 runs at 52.25, with the wicketkeeping duties given to KS Bharat from Andhra. Bharat’s returns with the bat this season were a fairly average 292 runs at 29.20 with no centuries.

For Vidarbha, the fire to prove a point will burn bright. Despite their stellar run, the likes of Faiz Fazal, R Sanjay and Rajneesh Gurbani didn’t find any takers in the IPL auctions. It must have been particularly hard for Gurbani, whose pace bowling was the single biggest factor in Vidarbha’s title triumph.

Gurbani is expected to share the new ball with Umesh Yadav, who has a point of his own to prove. While Umesh is still very much in the national scheme of things, he couldn’t have enjoyed being a perennial tourist in South Africa, where he sat on the bench throughout and didn’t get to play a single game. A fired-up Umesh who finds his radar can be lethal for international attacks, as Steven Smith’s Australians discovered a year ago, and he doesn’t need to depend on assistance from the surface to run through batting line-ups.

While Rest of India may have the more star-studded team, Vidarbha have the benefit of being a ‘team’ in the true sense of the word. And the Ranji champions might just have a more burning desire to prove a point.