Irani Cup, a one-off cricket contest heralding the new season, always used to attract the best on the circuit. A call-up to represent the Rest of India against the Ranji Trophy champion was considered a step short of representing India.

Times have changed, and the much-awaited fixture now appears more of a formality as Rest of India and Rajasthan meet in the five-day match starting at the SMS Stadium here on Saturday.

For many, the Irani Cup holds unforgettable memories. Would you believe the inaugural match, played over three days at the Railway Stadium in Delhi in March, 1960, witnessed a unique happening — 12th man batting in both the innings. The privileged 12th man happened to be Prem Bhatia, a former Delhi captain. Now 71, Bhatia remembers the match vividly. “I was still at college and was picked in the Rest of India side. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined I will get to bat. I was not in the playing eleven.”

Lala Amarnath, 49, was the chairman of the National selection committee and had picked himself in the Rest team. But a knee-injury reduced Lala to a spectator after he had bowled 11 overs of medium-pace. Lala, a most colourful and authoritative personality, asked Bhatia, “Do you like to bat?” Bhatia was stunned and managed to mumble “Yes Sir.”

Bhatia was promptly told to “pad up” even as rival captain Polly Umrigar protested weakly. Bhatia, walking in with Ghulam Guard on a hat-trick, borrowed Lala's kit and made 22 and 50 in the two innings as Rest drew with Bombay. That was the inaugural Irani Cup match. Bhatia understandably has fond memories of that match.

For players like Dilip Vengsarkar, Pravin Amre, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and W.V. Raman, the Irani Cup offered a platform to stake their claims for an India cap.

Pankaj injured

For Rajasthan, the opportunity provides a platform for some to showcase their potential after the maiden Ranji triumph this year. Fast bowler Pankaj Singh will miss the match due to a knee injury.

“The ball will seam a lot. It is a sporting pitch,” observed Kanitkar, who was pleasantly surprised when told of the Bhatia episode.

The teams (from):

Rest of India: Parthiv Patel (capt.), Shikhar Dhawan (vice-capt.), Abhinav Mukund, Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Ravindra Jadeja, Mandeep Singh, Pragyan Ojha, Rahul Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, Prasanth Parmeswaran, R. Vinay Kumar, Jalaj Saxena and C.M. Gautham.

Rajasthan: Hrishikesh Kanitkar (capt.), Aakash Chopra, Vineet Saxena, R.R. Parida, Ashok Menaria, Robin Bisht, Dishant Yagnik, Manjeet Singh, Deepak Chahar, Sumeet Mathur, Aniket Choudhary, Madhur Khatri, Gajendra Singh, Rohit Jhalani and Vaibhav Deshpande.

Umpires: K. Hariharan and C. Shamshuddin.

Third umpire: Bharti Vij.

Match Observer: Raju Mukherjee.

More In: Cricket | Sport