New Delhi: A talented Central Zone team led by Piyush Chawla is aiming to come out firing all cylinders when it squares off with an equally combative South Zone side in the final of the Duleep Trophy, starting here on Wednesday.
While South Zone crushed East by an innings and 118 runs on a seaming track at Lahli, Central also deflated a very powerful North Zone on a batting paradise at Mohali in their respective semi-final matches.
It will be a battle of attrition between South Zone's Robin Uthappa and Central's Naman Ojha, both of who scored contrasting match-winning centuries in their respective last-four clashes.
The Feroz Shah Kotla track has a liberal grass coating kept by young curator Ankit Dutta but as has been the case with the Delhi track, the 'rub of the green' has only deceived the competing teams with ball keeping low and slow.
"I don't know whether they will shave off some grass tomorrow before the start of the match. Looks a good grassy wicket but I can only assess it once the match starts," South skipper Vinay Kumar said on the eve of the match.
The rival teams will be without some key players due to the upcoming India A vs Sri Lanka practice game at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai.
While Central's spin duo of leggie Karn Sharma and chinaman Kuldeep Yadav have left, South will be missing as many as four players in Stuart Binny, Karun Nair, Manish Pandey and Sanju Samson. Samson, however, was not in the playing XI in the last match.
Both teams have brought in reinforcements: Central in the form of veteran left-arm spinner Ali Murtaza and Vidarbha offspinner Akshay Wakhare. South have brought in Tamil Nadu's middle-order mainstay Ramaswamy Prasanna and off-break bowler Malolan Rangarajan, Kerala's former India A batsman Vasudevan Jagadeesh and back-up medium pacer Ravi Kiran from Hyderabad.
The South have some of the best domestic batsmen in the business including Uthappa, who scored a century high on quality and gumption on a green track at Lahli. The selectors will also have a close look at new 'Domestic Run Machine' Lokesh Rahul.
With no Manish Pandey or Karun Nair in the middle-order, there is a chance that both Abhinav Mukund and R Prasanna might be drafted in the zonal XI by their coach Hemang Badani, who is happy that the inter-zonal first-class tourney is happening at the start of the season.
"If I were a player, I would think that I am two steps ahead of my peers as I start the season being picked in the zonal side. I would take it from there on," the former India left-hander said.
When asked if the South side bears a depleted look in the absence of Nair and Pandey, Badani said, "I don't think so because if some guys are replacing them, it means that they are good enough to play at this level."
For Central, a lot will depend on how Ojha bats, considering the form that he is in right now with a whopping 687 runs from five innings with two double hundreds.
Jalaj Saxena, Ashok Menaria and newly-appointed Railways captain Mahesh Rawat have also been among the runs, especially Rawat, who scored a fighting century in the second innings when North were setting sights on an improbable victory. He now boasts of four hundreds in his last four first-class games.
Among the bowlers, Ishwar Pandey and Pankaj Singh might find this track helpful, feels Central coach Harvinder Singh.
South Zone: Vinay Kumar (c), Robin Uthappa, Lokesh Rahul, Abhinav Mukund, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Baba Aparajith, Abhimanyu Mithun, Pragyan Ojha, HS Sharath, Hanuma Vihari, Shreyash Gopal, Malolan Rangarajan, Vasudevan Jagadeesh, Ramaswamy Prasanna, Ravi Kiran.
Central Zone: Piyush Chawla (c), Faiz Fazal, Jalaj Saxena, Robin Bist, Naman Ojha (wk), Ashok Menaria, Mahesh Rawat (wk), Ali Murtaza, Akshay Wakhare, Ishwar Pandey, Pankaj Singh, Arindam Ghosh, Amit Mishra, Shalabh Srivastava