India’s 2-1 Test series loss in South Africa has heightened the scrutiny on Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara: are they past their sell-by-date, or do they need to go back to the drawing board and reinvent themselves? We will know the views of the five wise men – the national selectors – when they pick the squad for the Test series against Sri Lanka.
But with uncertainty looming over the first-class season, do Pujara, Rahane, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma have the immediate opportunity to go back to first-class cricket and regain their confidence? Playing in the Ranji Trophy, away from the limelight of international cricket, had earlier helped the likes of Mohinder Amarnath, V. V. S. Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, and many more to fight their way back into the Indian team.
But, the last first-class game in India – the Ranji Trophy final between Saurashtra and Bengal – was played more than 22 months ago. No other major cricketing nation – not even war-torn Afghanistan – has been without a first-class competition in a world that’s finding new ways to deal with the challenges of the deadly virus.
First-class cricket seems to have fallen down the priority list of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The Ranji Trophy – the premier domestic competition – had to be shelved due to the pandemic in 2020-21.
The BCCI, which understandably restricted the previous domestic season to only limited overs’ tournaments for senior men, could have started the current season with the Ranji Trophy. Instead, the limited overs’ competitions were held first, perhaps to allow the scouts of the Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises to witness promising talent ahead of the 2022 mega auction.
Unfair on stakeholders of domestic cricket
Though the IPL now even dictates the global cricket calendar, it would be grossly unfair on hundreds of domestic cricket stakeholders if the BCCI is seeing the domestic season as a trial run for the IPL franchises. The success of Virat Kohli’s troops over the last seven years – especially in the Test arena with the landmark wins in Australia and England – was built on a core that had started playing competitive cricket before the advent of IPL.
The aspirations of them were to first represent their State team in the Ranji Trophy, then the zonal teams in the Duleep Trophy, then India A, and finally the national team. But the IPL has changed this structure and many IPL regulars who have even played for India in the T20Is and ODIs no longer prefer playing the longest format for their States.
The onus is on the BCCI – the richest cricket board in the world – to uphold and nurture red-ball cricket, enthuse youngsters to rediscover the pride of playing in the white flannels, and thereby offer the national selectors a steady supply chain of Test cricketers to build on the legacy of Kohli, M. S. Dhoni, and others before them.
A second domestic season without the Ranji Trophy will spread further disillusionment among the first-class cricketers and Indian cricket will be poorer for it.
The Ranji Trophy is not just for India hopefuls. The majority of cricketers plying their trade in the tournament know that they can’t graduate to international cricket, but they continue to give their best for the love of cricket and their passion-turned-profession runs their household.
BCCI pays them match fees, State associations pay a paltry daily allowance, and the Ranji Trophy is their primary source of income. In a day and age where public sector employment for domestic cricketers has been dropping every passing year, more than half of the 600-odd cricketers that participate in Ranji Trophy every year treat the Ranji match-fees as their primary income.
For 2019-20, the last concluded domestic season, a cricketer earned ₹35,000 per match-day for Ranji Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy, and ₹17,500 for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Each team was assured of eight Ranji games and six each in limited-overs tournaments.
A player who featured in the XI for all tournaments received approximately ₹14.35 lakh. Assuming every Ranji match lasted four days, more than 75 percent of that fee would have come via Ranji Trophy.
The BCCI last year announced graded match fees along with compensation for domestic cricketers. It announced that only those who played the 2019-20 Ranji Trophy would be paid half of their Ranji earnings for the edition that was lost due to the pandemic. Players on the verge of breaking from the Under-19s to Ranji or players hoping for a comeback after being dropped in the 2019-20 season or injured players were not offered any compensation.
Take Dhawal Kulkarni’s case, for example. The Mumbai veteran underwent surgery just before the start of the 2019-20 Ranji season and missed the entire season. As a result, he wasn’t offered compensation for the COVID-impacted season since he didn’t play a game in 2019-20.
An Indian international and a regular in the IPL, Kulkarni is unlikely to have been financially affected by it. But each of the 38 domestic teams will have players who have been deprived of compensation for no fault of theirs.
More than 500 match officials – match referees, umpires, scorers, and video analysts – were not even included in the list of beneficiaries for the lost season. Many of them now have turned their back on the game and have started a day job or in a few cases opened grocery stores.
With no vaccination and a relatively unknown virus, it was too risky for the BCCI to conduct the Ranji Trophy inside a bio-secure bubble for more than two months in 2020-21. But the tournament should go ahead this season as the world copes with the latest variant of COVID-19.
BCCI officials have offered a “lack of a suitable window” ahead of the IPL as the primary reason for shelving the Ranji Trophy. But the Ranji Trophy can still be organised with or without the 100-odd domestic season regulars who will be a part of the IPL. As of now, the BCCI officials are likely to discuss the fate of the Ranji Trophy and other tournaments of the suspended domestic season in a meeting over the weekend.
Here are a few options they can explore:
Option No. 1: Split the tournament before and after IPL
Each team, host association, and BCCI operations team will need at least 15 days to kick-start the tournament. If it’s decided by the end of January, the tournament can get underway on February 15.
With 35 days required for the completion of the league stage, the league stage can be completed around March 20. If the IPL starts from March 27, the IPL-bound cricketers can either be allowed to join the bubble late through a bubble-to-bubble transfer or they can skip the last round of the league stage.
The Ranji knockouts can be organised after the IPL in southern India in pockets where the monsoon reaches late. Till the BCCI introduced the two-tier system in the early 2000s, the Ranji Trophy was played with substantial gaps in between games.
Option No. 2: Let the tournament overlap with IPL
What harm if the Ranji Trophy and IPL clash? In terms of fan following, there is no match since Ranji has a limited following compared to the razzmatazz of IPL. As for the team compositions, more than half of the 38 participating teams are not going to be affected.
For the so-called bigger teams, an overlap will allow them to test their depth with promising youngsters getting an opportunity to showcase their talent. The “big teams” are already used to coping with the absence of international cricket.
There will be no dearth of match officials either since less than one-fourth of umpires on the domestic panel are employed in the IPL.
Option No. 3: Zonal league
There’s a school of thought that to minimise travel and save biosecure hub costs, the BCCI can organise the league stage circa zonal format of the good old days and then hope to conduct the knockouts post-IPL or even post-monsoon.
It’s not a simple option to execute. The Ranji has expanded into a 38-team affair in the last five years, and it would make an unfair distribution of the number of teams in a group. When the Ranji used to be a 27-team affair, the teams could be divided into five zones of either five or six teams in each group.
Even if a sixth zone of north-eastern teams is carved out, based on the existing groups, it would mean that the South Zone (with Pondicherry added) will have seven teams and the West will have only five (unless Vidarbha is moved from central to western zone). It would mean lesser games and match fees for certain players.
If the BCCI has the will, there will be a way for the Ranji Trophy.