The Karnataka State Cricket Association’s Alur facility had perhaps never seen such crowds before. At least 200 people gathered there for each of Jharkhand’s games in Group B of the Vijay Hazare Trophy recently. They stood under trees or in the sun, sat on the grass or on the tall boundary wall, all to watch one man.
Some had walked to the ground from nearby areas early in the morning while others had made the long trip from the centre of Bengaluru — 25 km away. M. S. Dhoni disappointed them the first time but they kept coming back; again and again. At a stroke, the tournament’s profile in the city had been raised to a level that no marketing campaign could have achieved.
Dhoni is not the only India international to be playing in the Vijay Hazare Trophy this season. Eleven Indian players who featured in the South Africa Test series have turned out for their state teams at least once this month.
R. Ashwin had played only one List A game for Tamil Nadu in the last five years. The last time he represented the side in the Ranji Trophy was in November 2012. India’s busy schedule simply did not give him any time. Now, though, he jumped at the opportunity. “Going back to the yellow brigade for the Vijay Hazare trophy,” he wrote on Twitter after the Delhi Test against South Africa. Six games later, having helped Tamil Nadu secure a spot in the quarterfinals, he could not contain his joy. “Csk to Tamil Nadu cricket team, we have maintained the same spirit the yellow stands for. Come on ppl of Tamil Nadu get behind us.#imAllin,” he exclaimed.
Ajinkya Rahane could not help Mumbai advance, but he still scored a hundred against Rajasthan. Cheteshwar Pujara, M. Vijay and Ravindra Jadeja all made important contributions. Their participation has not merely given the tournament cachet. It has raised the standard of competition significantly.
Dhoni may not have scored too many runs or be the designated captain, but his leadership from behind the wicket has been obvious. In Jharkhand’s opening game, against Jammu & Kashmir, he set all the fields and made vital bowling changes as his side clawed its way back from a rather difficult position. “His presence has lifted the energy of the team,” the Jharkhand coach, Rajiv Kumar, said afterwards. “He simply hates losing. That attitude rubs off on the rest of the players. Players have been talking to him, asking him for advice. He has been telling them what they need to do if they want to play for India. He had not played with this set of players before, but it took him only a little while to figure out who was what. He started making bowling changes which made a lot of difference. He brought on our part-time bowlers who suddenly made an impact. I don’t handle him any differently. I just ask the other players to learn what they can from him.”
Not many of India’s stars have been able to play regular domestic cricket over the last decade. Time was when the international calendar was not chock-full and big-name players lit up the Ranji Trophy with their performances. Also, players need down-time and not all of them have been inclined to play domestic cricket at every available opportunity. Rahul Dravid, however, took enormous pride in playing for Karnataka and turned out as often as he could. In what was his last ever Ranji Trophy match, he made an unbeaten 209 to lead Karnataka into the final of the 2009-10 season. Unfortunately, Dravid had to leave for Bangladesh and could not feature in the final, a game that Karnataka lost to a rather boorish Mumbai side in Mysuru.
Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble turned out for Karnataka in the final of the 1995-96 Ranji Trophy season and helped their side secure the title. (Dravid, who played that game, hadn’t made his international debut yet.) Srinath and Dravid — now an international — appeared in the final of the 1997-98 season too, in what was the first of successive championship wins for Karnataka.
Vijay Bharadwaj featured in both the 1995-96 and 1997-98 finals (with some distinction) and realises the value of the presence of an accomplished international.
“Domestic cricket has got a lot of importance,” he says. “These are not just practice games for these players. These are serious matches and it’s the good fortune of the team that they are able to call on an India player. It adds a lot of value not just to the team but the whole tournament. It’s very important that they come and play, if domestic cricket is to be at a high level. What Dhoni has done is the right thing.”
It had been eight years since Dhoni last played for Jharkhand. Some may wonder if settling into the state team after such an interval will be easy, but Bharadwaj, who played three Tests and 10 ODIs himself, dismisses the notion. “Settling in doesn’t take time at all. Even if an India player has not played domestic cricket for a long time, he will have followed his state team. He will have played with some of those players at the junior level. He will be in touch,” he remarks.
It’s not just the player’s own team that benefits, Bharadwaj points out, but also the opposition. “How many times will you get to play against an India player?” he asks. “The opposition sees this as an opportunity. That’s one of the best things about it. The player’s own team benefits, while for the opponent it’s an opportunity to make a mark. A domestic bowler bowling to an India batsman or a domestic batsman facing an India bowler will naturally raise his game.”
At Alur, Dhoni notably had a hard time against J&K’s Waseem Raza and Karnataka’s J. Suchith, both of whom dismissed him cheaply.
The two bowlers, both orthodox left-arm spinners, took other wickets in those games, but it was evident which one pleased them the most.