T he 84th season of the Ranji Trophy will commence soon and the players surely have a sense of anticipation leading up to the start. Unfortunately the same sense of anticipation won’t be there with the fans, who will barely turn up for the matches. That is why the Ranji Trophy is no more the premier tournament in the country. The Indian Premier League, the T20 money-spinner and also perhaps the springboard for aspiring internationals, has taken over the mantle.
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The Ranji Trophy has been tinkered with far too much in the last couple of seasons and has lost a lot of its relevance. The reluctance to tackle under-prepared and over-prepared pitches had made a lot of the contests lop-sided, either in favour of the bowlers or the batsmen. The technical committee, last term, opted for neutral venues, which didn’t help as staging associations and the fans barely showed any interest in these matches.
The other big issue is the crowded international calendar which stops Indian international players from playing in the competition. This further erodes the importance of the tournament. But today, even in other cricketing nations, not too many internationals play a majority of the games in their domestic first class cricket.
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When we started playing school cricket, the first aspiration was to play for your state team. Playing for the country was of course the ultimate dream, but it was more a distant dream. Those days it was said that getting into the India team was easier than finding a way into the Mumbai XI. Mumbai had an eleven who had played for India some time or the other. Therefore, to break in was pretty much impossible.
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Travelling with the Mumbai team was a terrific learning experience. Those days it was train travel and so journeys, especially to Kolkata, were as long as 36 hours, including two nights on the train. The younger lot would clamber up to the upper berths as the seniors played cards, sitting on the lower berths. There would be plenty of leg pulling by the seniors, but it was all about cricket. For us, the juniors, listening to all the stories was wonderful cricketing education. It was inspiring as well.
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The cricket was competitive and Bombay was always the team to beat. It had won the Ranji Trophy 15 years in a row before Karnataka dethroned it, in the semifinals in the 1973-74 season. The battle between Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Ashok Mankad and Erapalli Prasanna and B. S. Chandrasekhar was worth going miles to see. There was also the contest between Gundappa Viswanath and Brijesh Patel with Abdul Ismail and Padmakar Shivalkar. In the North, the Bishan Singh Bedi-led Delhi team was a formidable force. The other teams had a couple of good players, but, unfortunately, not much support from the rest and weren’t much of a threat.
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There was a mistaken belief that Bombay versus Delhi or Bombay versus Karnataka had more needle in it. For the Bombay team, of my time, it was more about beating Maharashtra. In those days, the Ranji Trophy was divided into five zones with five state teams in every zone and only one team qualifying from each zone. So, beating Maharashtra was a surefire way of qualifying from the West Zone, since the other teams were not as competitive.
Today Gujarat is the defending champion and that should be a huge fillip for the youngsters in a state that is mad about cricket. Bengal is another state which is crazy about cricket, but hasn’t really made the headway. It is here that the challenge lies. The authorities, not just the BCCI but also the state, need to ensure that they keep producing and nurturing cricketers to widen the talent pool for the national side.
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