Once considered a virtual selection trial for the national team, the Duleep Trophy has in recent years been played solely for the sake of legacy. As it returns in September in its conventional avatar, there will be hopes of making it relevant again in the domestic calendar.
The inter-zonal first-class tournament will be played in four venues in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry from September 8 to 25, kickstarting what promises to be — for the first time in three years — an unshortened season of domestic cricket.
Over the last decade, the tournament, once considered India’s most important first-class tournament, has been fighting for survival. It wasn’t surprising that the BCCI didn’t for a moment consider organising it during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, it had been suspended even before the pandemic — in 2015-16, after 54 uninterrupted editions in the zonal format.
The BCCI was heavily criticised for tarnishing its legacy. It was unrecognisable when it returned the next season, its zonal format scrapped and status reduced to that of a guinea pig for pink-ball trials. It was now a three-team competition, the teams determined by a national selection panel.
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Only fringe players and those keen to prove their fitness after an injury break found real value playing the tournament. “In the three-team format, it was noticed that not many players had the drive to give their everything and win a game for the team.
“That will definitely change with the zonal format,” says Surendra Bhave, the domestic stalwart and former national selector, who was coach of India Red during the last Duleep Trophy.
“When you introduce the Duleep Trophy at a zonal level, which is what it was earlier, it must add at least 20 percent of spice to the tournament. Even if players take it as just another practice match, it’s still relevant. At a time when you have people tired of playing international cricket, then IPL and then domestic matches, having it as a season opener is also a good idea,” Bhave says.
Bhave agrees that the tournament had started to lose its sheen during his tenure as national selector from 2008 to 2012. He insists it was understandable, with the Indian Premier League and A tours taking prominence and pushing the Duleep Trophy to the sidelines.
Former India off-spinner and national selector Sarandeep Singh echoes Bhave’s views.
“We observed during the previous format that despite our best efforts to make it an even contest in terms of the strength of the teams, the players lacked that killer instinct as far as winning the tournament goes. So judging a player based on his performance in the Duleep Trophy was difficult. But with the zonal format, we know that there is prestige involved, so everyone will be focussed on winning the tournament,” says Sarandeep.
Bhave agrees. “The zonal format will definitely revive the interest of all the stakeholders. The players will want to prove their worth and add prestige to their zone, something that our generation would crave for. A mix of players from teams in your zone also means that besides competing against each other to impress the selectors, you are driven by a common goal of helping the team win the trophy.”
Ever since the first Duleep Trophy was held in 1961-62, the tournament — for most seasons — was played on a round-robin basis. Even the three-team format had every team playing every other team, with the two making the final. The addition of a sixth team (North East Zone), however, makes it a knockout tournament. Four four-day matches and a five-day final will be played over 18 days.
The creme de la creme of fringe players will not be playing as it clashes with the four-day and one-day series between India A and New Zealand A. However, cricket fans may still find it exciting as many Test and limited-overs international regulars have been named in their respective zonal teams. And if it does end up reviving interest among fans, it will definitely set the tone for a long, gruelling season.
Just as the zonal format has been re-introduced in the Duleep Trophy, so too has the Plate League final been re-introduced in the Ranji Trophy. More importantly, minnows can no longer qualify for the Ranji Trophy knockouts at the expense of a top team.
The 38 teams will be divided into five groups. The Elite League comprises four groups of eight teams each, while Plate League will have six of the recently-introduced teams. It means each of the top 32 teams will be assured of seven first-class games this season. This is good news for top-flight cricketers; their livelihood will be taken care of and it gives them enough opportunities to make an impression on the national selectors. All Plate teams will be assured of a minimum of six games. Besides the semifinals and the final, a fifth-place playoff will also be organised by the BCCI.
Unlike the first-class tournaments, the limited-overs tournaments — Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy — will be played in the same format as before.
Those who gain most from the domestic calendar are the women cricketers. They will finally get to play after missing out in the last three seasons. With the BCCI planning the inaugural Women’s Indian Premier League in March 2023, the women’s calendar will wind up in February. Cricketers will welcome this; in the past, they would be made to slog in the sweltering April heat.
Moreover, the introduction of additional tournaments for Under-19 women with an eye on the maiden Under-19 Women’s World Cup early next year also augurs well for the budding cricketers.
However, be it for men or for women, the fact that junior cricket — especially under-16 and under-19 cricket — will resume after a forced break due to the pandemic will mean that the BCCI’s age-verification team will have its task cut out. Age-fudging complaints and cases will likely be on the rise, and it will be interesting to see the kind of additional measures the BCCI takes over the next six months.