Mumbai: Star-studded North Zone, comprising four members of the 2011 World Cup winning squad including captain Harbhajan Singh, start odds-on favourites in the T20 Inter Zonal league for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy commencing at the Wankhede Stadium on Sunday.
The North side has explosive batsmen in Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Shikhar Dhawan and Rishabh Pant, and wily bowlers such as Harbhajan, who missed the entire first class domestic season, the ageless Ashish Nehra and leggie Yuzvendra Chahal, to name a few, to bank on.
North, thus, appears to be the side to beat in the five-team inter zonal round-robin league that ends on February 18.
Led by Harbhajan, North have the right balance in all departments as they take on South Zone in the second match on day one starting at 1:30 pm following the tournament opener commencing at 9:30 am between hosts West Zone, to be led by wicket keeper Parthiv Patel, and the Suresh Raina-led Central.
The fifth team in the league is East, led by Bengal captain Manoj Tiwary, who are to play their first game on February 13 against Central.
That the tournament comes ahead of the February 20 IPL auction at Bengaluru was noted by West coach and former Saurashtra batsman Sitanshu Kotak.
"This is the best possible team West can put out. We will try and see everyone gets an opportunity all 15, three players are going out after two games to play in the warm-up game against Australia (at the nearby Brabourne Stadium from February 17-19)," he said.
"It's perfect timing, just before IPL auction on the 20th because T20 zonals have finished everyhere. It's perfect timing for players who want to prove themselves and whoever does well will have bright opportunities with franchises during IPL auction.
"All teams are strong, we will try to get momentum, just about momentum, who gets better momentum, may be bit of a toss depending on moisture in the morning."
Skipper cum stumper Parthiv Patel concurred with the team's coach.
"The timing could not have been better. A lot of quality
players and international players are there. IPL is still a fair bit away but the one dayers are also coming up. It's a good opportunity for youngsters like Priyank Panchal and Ishwar Choudhary. We are a very good all round side with a lot of experience," said Parthiv.
On Wridhiman Saha being chosen ahead of him in the ongoing one-off Test against Bangladesh at Hyderabad, Gujarat's first-ever Ranji Trophy-winning captain said that he was waiting for other opportunities to impress.
"I did what I could have done in the opportunities I got. Rest of it is not in my control. I am on top of my game and I am sure more opportunities will come. It's great that there is competition," said Parthiv who replaced the injured Saha for the last three Test matches against England before giving way to the fit-again no. One wicket keeper against Bangladesh.
West also have in their ranks Mumbai's 2015 Ranji Trophy winning captain and wicket keeper, Aditya Tare.
"Parthiv will keep wickets. I will play as a batsman," said Tare.
Eyes will be trained on pint-sized Kedar Jadhav too after his exploits with the bat in the ODI series against England.
South is to be led by Karnataka skipper R Vinay Kumar and has veteran Dinesh Karthik in it apart from promising youngsters Mayank Agarwal, Vijay Shankar as well as the seasoned left arm pacer Sreenath Aravind, to name a few.
Among those who will be watched closely from the East ranks is young wicket keeper batsman Ishan Kishan.
The side sports other experienced campaigners like pacer Ashok Dinda, wicket keeper batsman Shreevats Goswami, left arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem and former South players Amit Verma and Arun Karthik.
The tournament schedule (all games at Wankhede from 9:30 am and 1:30 pm respectively):
Feb 12: Central v West followed by South v North
Feb 13: North v West followed by Central v East
Feb 15: South v East followed by Central v North
Feb 16: South v West followed by North v East
Feb 18: East v West followed by South v Central.