It is a fact that has been well-acknowledged that a glut of international engagements keep Indian cricket’s biggest, busiest stars from the national championship, the Ranji Trophy. The Mumbai vs Karnataka thriller in the final would have been that much spicier if garnished with generous helpings of Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid. Tendulkar and Dravid missed the Ranji final because the first Test against Bangladesh was to start just two days after the end of that match; Khan was playing in yet another soon-to-be-forgotten, largely irrelevant one-day tournament in Dhaka. The absence of the best players, thus, reduces the opportunity to test upcoming talent against the touchstone of experience, leaving their performances open to scrutiny.
The scheduling of international matches seems to suggest that the Indian cricket board (BCCI) doesn’t think the Ranji Trophy—Test cricket’s nursery—and its final are relevant. But even if the international calendar hadn’t been so crowded, domestic cricket wouldn’t be too alluring for Test stars, jaded or injured on national duty. And domestic cricketers themselves undergo a dizzying spell of play, travel and more play and more travel in a matter of weeks. It saps the players, and reduces the gap between mediocrity and excellence.
There are six different national tournaments in three different formats for the senior players—two longer-version (Ranji and Duleep), three one-day and one Twenty20. Ironically, this presents problems of both plenty and paucity of matches. Some players get as few as seven Ranji innings in the whole year, a desperately low number to prove their worth. Some are luckier, but they’re blighted by an avalanche of matches in little time, often playing games separated by just three days, including a day of travel.
Lack of time, a scarce commodity that even the BCCI can’t buy, puts the most pressure on the bowlers, rendering them almost incidental. As Rahul Dravid told Outlook, “With so little time between the games, teams often don’t want to risk injury to their bowlers by trying for an outright win.” They’re happy to gather points on the basis of the first innings lead, not risk injuries to the bowlers and let the game end in a draw.
“In county cricket, there are bonus points for taking wickets as well, and this makes the contest exciting.”
V.V.S. Laxman, Test Batsman, India
Perhaps striving for an outright victory is futile, difficult as it is to take 20 wickets in a four-day match on most Indian wickets. This enables the batsmen to inflate their averages—not a true reflection of their abilities. But there’s a flip side as well—matches without two complete innings deprive the batsmen the opportunities to catch selectors’ attention. Former Indian opener Aakash Chopra says, “Six innings in a year is not enough! A couple of bad shots, a bad decision or a fantastic ball, and your season is over. You then get a chance after a year.” To tackle this anomaly, Chopra suggests more Ranji matches at the expense of meaningless tournaments. “There should be more matches, but spread out. If that means scrapping the Duleep Trophy, so be it!”
India has two first-class competitions—the inter-state Ranji Trophy and the inter-zone Duleep Trophy. There’s also one match for the Irani Trophy. Then there are the three one-day events—the 50-over Ranji (state one-dayers), the Deodhar Trophy (inter-zonal one-dayers), the Challenger Trophy (teams randomly made of best players), as well as the Twenty20 championship. Since the domestic season can’t be stretched, at least two of the 50-over events can be dispensed with. The Challenger Trophy does serve a purpose, Chopra says, because it pits a rated youngster against someone like, say, Zaheer Khan. “The Deodhar Trophy isn’t relevant because people hardly get selected on the basis of performances in it,” Chopra says.
Travel isn’t a joy ever since the Ranji Trophy was converted into a two-tier event. Earlier, neighbouring teams from a zone would compete with each other to qualify for the national level, logging in fewer travel miles. Now, the Elite and Plate divisions separate the top teams from the whipping boys, but it involves tiring journeys across the country—for instance, Punjab could be playing Tamil Nadu in Chennai and then sprinting back home for the next match. Nor has this system raised the standard of cricket among Plate teams. They languish in obscurity, playing five games a year, which even selectors don’t have the inclination or the time to grace.
Many people have mooted abolishing this system and dividing the 27 first-class teams in three or four groups, region-wise. This, and the abolition of Duleep Trophy, would provide Indian cricketers with an equitable system—more games better spaced out. Mohammed Kaif, ex-Indian batsman, agrees, “With this, we’ll have a better set-up for Ranji Trophy. We should care about quality, not quantity.”
To ensure exciting games and results, Kaif suggests extending the existing four-day format of the games to five, and re-laying the pitches to make them harder and bouncier. This would give the bowlers time to bowl out their opponents twice. “There are few outright wins, for once a team takes the lead, there is lesser hunger to go for a win,” he says. “One, it’s very difficult to get 20 wickets on these tracks in four days; two, the bowlers are tired. Finally, the reward for an outright win isn’t much higher than taking the lead.”
V.V.S. Laxman, who has played for Lancashire, feels we could incorporate the finer aspects of county cricket—specifically, the points system. “In England,” Laxman told Outlook, “There are bonus points for getting up to 400 runs, and for getting three, six and nine wickets. So all teams try to score quickly, get to 400 and then take wickets. This makes the contest exciting and more competitive.” Chopra too feels innings shouldn’t be allowed to meander much beyond 400. Instead of batting on, teams should try to get the bowling points by “going for a win, because the difference in points is great”.
Chopra says he was thrilled when he was chosen to play for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy, for “it’s a step closer to getting to play for your country”. But he feels that now some of the sheen has gone out of the event—easy money elsewhere, specifically the IPL, is a big reason. Kaif believes that your best, most testing formats—Tests and first-class—should be more lucrative to players. If first-class formats lack hype and money, the quality of players would go down.
Kaif wonders whether the prime ambition of young players would be to play for the country. “I’m not sure if we’d see players like Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman ever again,” he says. “I’m really worried about this, because to play for 15-20 years needs lots of sacrifices. To remain fit isn’t easy. You have to makes sacrifices, follow a tough routine, sleep early and rise early.” But the IPL has changed the work culture, Kaif says. “Now it’s a bit different, some people may have a nice dinner and sacrifice a bit on their sleep. If a player does well for one season or in the IPL, he’s dealing in lakhs and crores. That does affect motivation.”
Money helps, though. Chopra says Ranji Trophy remains relevant as it provides gainful employment to 400-odd cricketers who’ll never ever play for India or in the IPL, and who make Rs 1.60 lakh a match. For them, motivation isn’t far to seek, for they’re playing for a living. To them and to those who’re yet to come, the BCCI owes a reorganisation of domestic cricket and Ranji Trophy, for they do provide the rough matter from which dreams shall be realised.
Band For The Future
Best performers in 2009-10 Ranji Trophy season
Ajinkya Rahane, 21
Mumbai right-hander, bats at No. 3. In his third season, Rahane scored heavily.
Matches 8, Runs 791
Highest 265*, Average 87.88
Manish Pandey, 20
Karnataka right-hander, middle-order bat. Attractive strokeplayer, helped Karnataka reach the final.
Matches 8, Runs 738
Highest 194*, Average 61.50
Cheteshwar Pujara, 22
Right-hander; has been scoring heavily for Saurashtra for three seasons
Matches 5, Runs 554
Highest 204*, Average 79.14
Abhimanyu Mithun, 20
The Karnataka medium-pacer was often unplayable, key to his team’s fortunes in his debut season
Matches 8, Wickets 38
Best 6/86, Average 25.39
R. Vinay Kumar, 25
Karnataka's bowling mainstay for three seasons, can bat a bit too
Matches 7, Wickets 39
Best 8/32, Average 19.66
Iqbal Abdulla, 20
Mumbai's left-arm spinner took 30 wickets and is a useful batsman
Matches 8, Wickets 30
Best 4/48, Average 27.46
* Doesn’t include figures from the Ranji Final