With India scheduled to tour South Africa later this year for two Twenty20s, seven ODIs and three Tests, it was a sensible decision by the board to send the second XI two months prior to that trip so that a few players, who are certain for that tour, get some important practice while the rest get the chance to stake their claims.
Three players are certain, barring injury, to be picked in the Test leg of India's tour from November to January: Cheteshwar Pujara - who is leading India A here - Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay, while the rest will try to encore their domestic performances and impress the selectors. While both Pujara and Vijay have got previous experience of playing in South Africa, Dhawan has made rapid strides after his blistering Test debut against Australia this year.
Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Ajinkya Rahane are next in line whose performance for the A team will decide their future for the Test team. For Rohit, it has become imperative now to come out of his eternal 'talented' tag. A few performances - half-centuries in the ICC Champions Trophy, Caribbean tour and Zimbabwe trip - here and there might help him cling on to the Indian limited-overs team for the time being, but it would not get him an entry into the Test XI, especially when he is famous for throwing his wicket away.
Rohit's last century in ODIs came in 2010 on the tour of Zimbabwe when he slammed two successive hundreds against the hosts and Sri Lanka. But in three years since then he has crossed the fifty mark 14 times without converting into a hundred once. Even Rohit might know that time is running out for him.
Raina's inability to tackle the short-pitch bowling has been well documented. He was peppered with a barrage of short-pitched stuff when India were hammered 4-0 in England in 2011. He was seen jumping like a cat on a hot tin roof whenever England's pacers tested him, and got just one fifty (78 at Lord's) in six innings and one more (55) in the next four in the home Tests against New Zealand in 2012. Raina needs to shed the he-can't-handle-short-balls tag and this tour provides him the opportunity to do that.
Despite having a first-class average over 60, Rahane has mostly been on the fringes of Test selection. His only Test against Australia in Delhi this year was the result of an injury to Dhawan. Expectedly, Rahane was under extreme pressure and could only make 7 and 1 in two innings, having batted at No. 5 and not in the top order. The A tour is a big opportunity for the 25-year-old as a good showing here will once again bring him into the selector's radar.
There is also going to be a two-way tussle between Dinesh Karthik and Wriddhiman Saha for the second wicketkeeper's slot. Karthik looks to have found a spot in ODIs as a batsman after his good showing in the last two Ranji Trophy seasons, where he scored 688 and 633 at 49.14 and 63.30 respectively. Saha too had a good last season for Bengal when he scored 644 runs at 46 and he too has experience of playing against South Africa (he made his debut agains them at Nagpur in 2010). Karthiks' past experience of playing in South Africa - he scored 63 and 38* in the Cape Town Test in 2007 - might tip the balance in his favour if he outperforms Saha for India A.
Like other batsmen, Ambati Rayudu and Stuart Binny also have a chance to present their cases. While Rayudu scored a century during India A's tour to New Zealand in September 2012 and had a terrific last Ranji season (873 runs at 72.75) for Baroda, Binny made 622 at 38.87 and picked up 27 wickets at 34.96 for Karnataka.
From this tour, India will also want to pick a fast bowler or two who can join the company of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav in the ensuing trip. Mohammed Shami, Ishwar Pandey, Jaydev Unadkat and Siddarth Kaul have all been selected after their exploits in first-class cricket last season. Shami picked up 28 wickets at 21.35 for Bengal, Madhya Pradesh's Pandey was the highest wicket-taker of the season with 48 wickets at 21.40 and Kaul was second with 44 wickets at 23.79. Unadkat was expensive as his 20 wickets came at 41.30 but he was a member of the Saurashtra side that reached the Ranji Trophy final. Good performance by any one of them could propel them to the senior team.
Parvez Rasool and Shahbaz Nadeem will fill the spinners' slots. With R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja having cemented their Tests spots and Amit Mishra doing exceedingly well in Zimbabwe recently, unless Rasool and Nadeem do something exceptional, its hard to see them making their cases.
Performing in South Africa will not only put them in the selectors' reckoning for the subsequent tour to South Africa but for the next three away tours - New Zealand in February-March, England in June-July and Australia in December-January - that India have in 2014.
India A squad: Cheteshwar Pujara (capt), Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Dinesh Karthik, Ajinkya Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha, Parvez Rasool, Shahbaz Nadeem, Shami Ahmed, Stuart Binny, Ishwar Pandey, Jaydev Unadkat, Siddarth Kaul.