Ranji stars: making a difference in a far-off place

Players such as Subramaniam Badrinath and Wasim Jaffer have come out of their homes to metamorphose a few careers. It won’t be part of their statistics after they leave the game. But it matters to them. And, it matters a lot to Indian cricket.

Vidarbha captain S. Badrinath setting the field against his home state Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinal in Jaipur on February 16, 2015.   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

Former Mumbai player Wasim Jaffer, who now plays for Vidarbha, seen with Mohammed Azharuddin during the Delhi-Vidarbha Ranji Trophy match at the Ferozeshah Kotla on October 11, 2015.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Virender Sehwag, who has switched from Delhi to Haryana, on way to a hundred in the Ranji Trophy match against Karnataka in Mysore on October 24, 2015.   -  PTI

Chennai is Subramaniam Badrinath’s backyard. He has spent most of his 35 years here. He knows the place — he was born and brought up here. He knows its people. He knows its culture. And most importantly, he knows its cricket.

His first-class cricket career is 15 years old now. Despite Murali Vijay’s and R. Ashwin’s success at the international level, Badrinath is still respected in Tamil Nadu’s cricketing circles — Ashwin calls him Badri anna (elder brother). He was synonymous with Tamil Nadu cricket.

Last year, though he left Tamil Nadu and joined Vidarbha.

There is a similar tale involving Wasim Jaffer, who recently surpassed 10,000 runs in Ranji Trophy. He represented the most successful team — Mumbai — in Ranji Trophy for 19 years. He has played alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma and has remained Mumbai’s batting lynchpin. This year, he left Mumbai for Vidarbha.

What’s with Vidarbha?

Compared to Tamil Nadu and Mumbai, Vidarbha is a modest team. They have been playing Ranji Trophy since the 1950s without any major success. Tamil Nadu has a rich legacy of cricketers — S. Venkataraghavan, K. Srikkanth, and now, R. Ashwin, Murali Vijay. Mumbai has almost continuously churned out some of the best cricketers India ever had.

Vidarbha has hardly had anybody like that. Over half a century of domestic cricket, and Umesh Yadav remains the only Test cricketer from there.

But last season Vidarbha qualified for the Ranji Trophy knock-outs after two decades under Badrinath’s captaincy. They finished third in their group. They even got an innings victory against a Delhi side that had Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Unmukt Chand.

“It gave me a lot of satisfaction to achieve what we did in the last season,” says Badrinath, who scored 613 runs at 51.08.

It wasn’t easy for him to leave Chennai. His family stays there. His seven-year-old daughter goes to school. He doesn’t get to see them as he used to. Also, he has had to deal with a new place, unfamiliar people and a different cricketing culture.

Why did he shift then?

“At a particular point of your career, you need new challenges,” he says. “It is a different scenario if you are still playing international cricket, but if you aren’t, then you need fresh challenges.”

After going unsold in the 2014 IPL auction, Badrinath had the opportunity to play for Vidarbha. “I thought it was right to take it up,” he says. Apart from scoring runs and captaining a side, Badrinath wanted to help and improve young cricketers. And, Vidarbha has a young side — only four players from the squad are above 30.

“I didn’t think about mentoring initially. I just thought I would concentrate on my batting and captaining the side. But once I joined the team and interacted with the youngsters, I thought I would take it up. I really enjoy talking to the youngsters in the team and helping them improve. Wherever I play cricket, I want to make a difference.”

Wasim Jaffer has similar reasons for moving to Vidarbha. “I think it is a very competitive side. I know I am at that stage where I won’t be able to play for India. So I don’t want to stop any youngsters coming through or will be sitting out because of me (in Mumbai). And I was offered a place in Vidarbha,” says Jaffer. So, he felt he’d rather go to a place where he was needed.

Apart from Jaffer, this season has quite a few cricketers who have transferred from their home team. The most popular among them, Virender Sehwag shifted from Delhi to Haryana. Pragyan Ojha has moved from Hyderabad to Bengal, and R. P. Singh is playing for Gujarat after a decade-long stint with Uttar Pradesh.

This trend, however, is not radical. Players have played for multiple teams in the past. Only four seasons ago, Aakash Chopra and Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who are from Delhi and Maharashtra, respectively, inspired Rajasthan to a Ranji triumph in 2011 and 2012. But the number of big names that have been transferred this season is unprecedented in recent times.

Vidarbha coach Paras Mhambrey says that it’s a good thing for Indian cricket. “Established cricketers moving to places where cricket is not very well developed will help nurture the talent in that team,” says Mhambrey, who himself was a Mumbai bowler.

The benefits are mutual. Badrinath, who has completed one year with Vidarbha says that it has been a “pleasant experience” so far. “They treat me really well. They provide me with all the facilities and keep me in a comfortable space,” says Badrinath.

Jaffer, too, admits that he is settling in well. “They have a really good academy and I know Paras Mhambrey when he used to play for Mumbai. So, I find it comfortable here,” he says.

There is a conflation of cricketing cultures when an experienced first-class cricketer joins a smaller team. For instance, Wasim Jaffer, who has been fostered in Mumbai — the most successful domestic cricket team in the country — can impart a winning attitude in Vidarbha’s youngsters.

“Mumbai always thinks about winning the Ranji Trophy. But sometimes, in other states, that’s not how they think. They compete and they play well, but they don’t think about winning the trophy. I don’t blame them for it as they have a few limitations. But in the last few years, things have changed. The youngsters in Vidarbha are ambitious and it motivates me to improve them,” says Jaffer.

Mhambrey says that youngsters in Vidarbha can learn from the experience of Badrinath and Jaffer. These cricketers, who voluntarily mentor the youngsters, make the coach’s job easier. “With Badri and Wasim in the team, I know I don’t have to worry about the batting. So, I mainly concentrate on the team’s bowling and pitch in wherever it’s necessary,” the coach says.

Since Jaffer and Badrinath were groomed in two different cricketing cultures, they see things differently. This difference in perspective helps the team, according to Mhambrey. “For instance, if a youngster faces a problem, he gets two different solutions from them. And, he can go for whichever approach suits him the best,” says Mhambrey.

Badrinath and Jaffer are aware that they don’t have a lot of years ahead of them. And, there is little left for them to achieve in first-class cricket. Yes, runs, wickets, averages, strike-rates and all that will count. It will define their careers and make up their legacies. But as Jaffer says, “helping the youngsters and instilling a winning mentality in them will give me a lot more happiness.”

They have come out of their homes to metamorphose a few careers. It won’t be part of their statistics after they leave the game. But it matters to them. And, it matters a lot to Indian cricket.