Adding a new dimension to the domestic scene

THE week gone by has been an eventful one. What with the Board of Control for Cricket in India putting forward the proposal for the change in the Ranji Trophy system.

The idea of a two-tier system in the Ranji Trophy appears to be a well thought out one. Fielding the stronger sides in one half of the competition is bound to raise the standard.

In the past, we had instances of the leading teams steamrolling lesser opponents in the Ranji Trophy and now, with the elite teams, fighting it out for glory, the battles are bound to be stiffer.

However, having brought about a shift in thinking, the BCCI has to ensure that the 'superstars' actually take part in the tournament. This is easier said than done, given the busy international schedules these days.

Stars do increase the level of interest in a match. I remember there used to be around 20,000 spectators for a Karnataka-Tamil Nadu game in the 70s and early 80s, something that is unthinkable in the present day scenario.

Karnataka then had players such as Gundappa Visvanath, Bhagwat Chandrasekar, Erapalli Prasanna, and Brijesh Patel. And Tamil Nadu had men like Srinivas Venkataraghavan and V.V. Kumar. The atmosphere in those games was tremendous, there was a lot of healthy rivalry and the quality of play was invariably good.

Just imagine a scenario where Sachin Tendulkar matches wits with the best bowlers in the country. The crowds would lap it up, and it would give tremendous fillip to domestic cricket.

Sadly, Ranji Trophy, due to a lack of spectator support which leaves matches bereft of atmosphere, has suffered from the end of the 80s. Hardly a healthy sign.

The Board stepping in and taking some concrete steps is welcome. However, we have to be careful here. The promising cricketers in the lower division, ones with exceptional talent, but in a weak side, will have to be encouraged.

There is always the danger of the lesser rung suffering because of a lack of exposure in the media. In that case, the players will be the biggest losers.

The Board will do well to include outstanding performers from the lower division in the zonal sides for the competitions like the Duleep and the Deodhar Trophies. This way justice can be done.

Over the last few years, we have seen teams that used to be the punching bags for the bigger sides, actually managing to turn the tables on the fancied ones. They have obviously benefited from competing with the stronger outfits, improving their own standard in the process. In the South Zone, Andhra and Kerala are such teams that spring to mind immediately.

There is a possibility, in a two-tier system, that the level of play in the lesser division might stagnate. The Board will have to guard against this possibility.

On the flip side, it could be argued that these teams will have some motivation for they have a chance to qualify for the top division. This could lead to intense competition, that would only be good for Indian cricket.

Indeed, we will be having a new scenario with some sides struggling to avoid relegation, and others battling to take their places. We might be in store for a lot of suspense and drama, adding a new dimension to the domestic scene.

It would only be proper if the domestic cricketers get paid better. We have a huge disparity now with the Indian cricketers raking it in, and the men who slog it out in the domestic circuit receiving a pittance. It is now up to the Board to set right this imbalance.

Domestic cricket is the heart and soul of the game in the country. It is here where everything begins, and cricketers duelling it out in the National circuit should be treated with the respect they deserve.

Let's move from the national to the international cricket. The immediate challenge for the Indian side is the triangular one-day competition in England. Under the home conditions, England, that appears a rejuvenated side under Nasser Hussain, will be tough to overcome.

This is a flexible English side with several options, and it would come as a surprise, if it does not make the final. England does appear a well balanced side.

At home its pace attack becomes doubly dangerous under the conditions. And England has a settled batting line-up that has stood well to the various challenges in recent times.

Sri Lanka will be without its trump card, Muttiah Muralitharan, however, the team has been in England for over two months now, and thus will be better prepared than the Indians for the series. Lanka would also be desperately hoping for a return to form of the destructive Sanath Jayasuriya, who had a wretched Test series. The captain will have to lead from the front.

The Lankans will surely miss the solidity of Marvan Atapattu at the top of the order. He is such a calming influence in a line-up of stroke-makers. In his absence, Lanka will have to guard against England and India making inroads early on. Much would depend on the talented Mahela Jayawardene, especially if the Lankans make it to the climactic stages of the tournament.

The Indians appear sound in batting, but the inexperienced pace attack will be tested. In how well the Indians adjust to the conditions, will depend their fate. Sachin Tendulkar is obviously the key man, not just in the one-day series, but during the entire tour.

By the time this article appears in print, we would be in the early phase of the triangular one-day series. I hope the team-management takes clear-cut decisions on the contentious wicket-keeping and opening slots. Half-hearted measures will just not work.

Traditionally, the Indians have been slow starters on tours, taking their time to adjust to conditions, that are so dramatically different from India. It could be cold and wet, and the ball is sure to move around. It will be a fresh challenge for Sourav Ganguly's men. From India's perspective, a good start is vital.