A glance at the RoI squad suggests that the position taken by the selectors can be debated. The RoI squad as it was originally picked, consisted of 4 middle order batsmen - Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Kaif, 1 opening batsman - Jaffer, 2 wicketkeepers - Dhoni and Patel, 3 spinners - Kumble, Harbhajan and Ojha, and 4 fast bowlers - Zaheer, Ishant, RP Singh and Ashok Dinda. The selectors have clearly decided that Parthiv Patel should open the batting for RoI along with Wasim Jaffer. I can see why Patel had to be picked, given his performances last season, but it is evident that the selectors don't think there is anyone compelling to be considered enough for the opening position apart from Gambhir and Jaffer.
Even if there wasn't, this policy of conflating Patel the wicketkeeper batsman, with a specialist opener, especially for a game like the Irani Trophy is puzzling. I can understand the selectors doing it in a Test Match, since it is a stop gap measure and gives the Test team more flexibility if Irfan Pathan or Parthiv Patel open the batting. But surely, the Rest of India side in the Irani Trophy doesn't need to make such a compromise in the interests of balance. Would it not be more valuable to see another specialist opener (Robin Uthappa and Ajinkya Rahane come to mind) being tested by Ishant Sharma and Ashish Nehra? Parthiv Patel is never going to be selected to play for India as a specialist batsman in any case. If they had to pick a stop-gap option, would it not have been more advisible to select a bowler who could bat a bit, instead of a second wicket-keeper? At least a bowler who can open the batting will give India the option of playing five bowlers against Australia without compromising on batting depth.
I suspect that the decision to go with Patel had to do with the pecking order that most selection committees invariably build up. There seems to be an unwritten order in which fringe players get their chance. Yuvraj Singh for example, long considered the batsman in waiting to take up a middle order spot the moment one became available, has been dropped down that pecking order, with Kaif and possibly even Badrinath moving up above him. Parthiv Patel's brilliant 179 against Mumbai in last year's Irani Trophy game may have something to do with his selection as well.
It should be a crackling game at the Reliance Stadium in Baroda. Delhi have warmed up nicely in their Nissar Trophy encounter againt SNGPL from Pakistan. They lost that game on the first innings, but when the game ended were sufficiently well placed to have made a serious push for a win had rain not intervened. Delhi ended the third day 384 runs ahead with 6 wickets in hand in their second innings, a solid position to be in in any four or five day game. Virat Kohli could ensure his selection for the Australia series with a solid Irani Trophy game after his 197 in Delhi's season opener. With Tendulkar's injury troubles, there might just be an open slot.
The Irani Trophy game has seen outright wins being scored by Rest of India in four out of the last five contests (2003 - 2007). The sole victory for the Ranji Trophy Champions came in the 2005-06 edition when Railways beat Rest of India at their home patch, the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi.
The best Irani Trophy game in recent years was the 2003-04 game when a full-strength Mumbai side took on a full-strength Rest of India side at Chepauk. Mumbai batted first and reached 297 powered by Sachin Tendulkar's 97. In reply, Rest of India, with a batting line up which read Bangar, Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly, Yuvraj, Parthiv Patel, were bowled out by Ramesh Powar, Sairaj Bahutule, Avishkar Salvi, Ajit Agarkar and Robin Morris for 202, giving the Ranji Trophy Champions a priceless 95 run first innings lead. In a Ranji Trophy game Mumbai would never have let an opponent off the mat from such a position, and in this game too, it looked as though the winning touch which Mumbai brings to its matchplay was at work, when Mumbai recovered from 6/115 in their second innings, having just lost Sachin Tendulkar for 50, to 244 thanks to Bahutule, Powar and Agarkar in the lower order.
Rest of India were set 340 to win the Irani Trophy and immediately lost Sanjay Bangar in the second over of their run chase. Rahul Dravid joined Virender Sehwag. Sehwag fell after his usual blitz against the new ball for a run a ball 36. Laxmipathi Balaji cam in as nightwatchman. The next day, Balaji and Dravid plodded on against some tight Mumbai bowling, adding 68 runs in 37 overs, before Balaji lost patience and skied a sweep shot out to Ajit Agarkar at square-leg. VVS Laxman arrived.
At 3/123, chasing 340, Rest Of India had plenty of work to do, and Mumbai, having killed the momentum of runs, were itching for the kill. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid seemed to struggle at first, and spent 20 overs adding 57 runs. Then, VVS exploded. He went from 32(61) to 99(125) seemingly effortlessly before missing out on a century by one run, having added 168 with Rahul Dravid in 38 overs - the last 111 of those runs coming in 18 overs. Laxman, great Test Match batsman that he is, enjoys a fearsome reputation in first class cricket, and it is innings like these where he was simply able to change gears and step out to Ramesh Powar and Sairaj Bahutule, who until then had kept the runs well in check, that are responsible for that reputation.
As someone who watched that 4th days play said to me, it was as though the wicket stopped turning once Laxman and Dravid started motoring along. It didn't matter who was bowling, what the match situation was; nothing!
Later that season, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were to maul the Australian Test attack, and treat the Cricket watching public to a sublime partnership of 303 at Adelaide. Laxman was also to feature in a stand of 353 with Sachin Tendulkar at Sydney. That Irani Trophy game was in retrospect, just a little glimpse of the avalanche of beautiful runs that were to flow from Indian bats that season.
Mumbai were outclassed by VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in that game. That was the only way Mumbai were going to lose after having played as well as they did. This year's Irani Trophy is similarly star studded, with both sides at full strength. Delhi is no Mumbai, but that man Sehwag is capable of anything.
Expect an epic.