Another RANJI season

IT is winter in Delhi, time for Ranji and another cricket season. The Indian team is in Australia but 27 teams and 500 first class players are competing in the national championship in centres scattered round the country.

IT is winter in Delhi, time for Ranji and another cricket season. The Indian team is in Australia but 27 teams and 500 first class players are competing in the national championship in centres scattered round the country.

When the new Ranji season started Bishan Singh Bedi's contract as Delhi coach was not renewed which led to an outrage and ultimately Madan Lal replaced Bedi as the coach. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

On a bright sunny morning, with a hint of a chill in the morning breeze, Delhi was playing Railways at the Karnail Singh Stadium, a venue with a distinctive old world charm. There are no concrete stands, which is fine because only a few spectators are present, and even they seem more keen on sunning themselves than watching an obscure bowler throwing a ball at some equally unknown batsman.

But one advantage of an empty stadium is you can walk freely along the boundary, chatting with Zaqir Hussain (back in the Railway squad after a break) at fine leg and later with Harvinder Singh (the team's main strike bowler) at third man. The Railway stadium is a unique place — you can sit next to the sightscreen, drink chai and speculate about the Indian team/Abhijit Kale or the wicket for this game. It is difficult to fully understand any of these things but, for the right perspective on the behaviour of the track, you only have to step forward and acquire first hand knowledge by conducting a live interview with players fielding on the fence!

The Railway track this morning was doing plenty. Early on the first morning the ball sizzled off the track and occasionally bounced so much the 'keeper had to leap high to stop its movement towards the badminton court behind him. A little later, the Delhi opener (the promising Salil Oberoi) nicked one and this started a sorry procession of batsmen returning to the pavilion shaking their heads.

The batting collapse sparked a furious off-field debate about Delhi's pathetic performance. In cricket opinion is free (even your young cousin and my elderly aunt has a view) and while it is normally impossible to find consensus on issues, the participants discussing Delhi cricket were unanimous in condemning it. Their verdict: Ferozeshah Kotla desperately needs a massive — and extensive — upgrade.

Experience suggests that cricket and controversy are inseparable, they have a strange dosti, nowhere is this bond more pronounced than in Delhi. Cricket is always stricken by some ghatna or the other, controversies keep unfolding every week like fresh episodes of TV soaps which never end. When the season started, coach Bishan Bedi's contract was not renewed which led to an outrage. Much mud was flung around by many people and, ultimately, Maddi pa stepped into his shoes. Coaches being changed is not unusual, this happens and teams move on. But DDCA went about this with a singular lack of grace. As a result, what should have been a separation with mutual consent became a flaming row, the divorce between coach/team became an ugly squabble and a lot of dirty cricket linen was washed in public.

If this was not bad enough, the team selection too was controversial, though this is routine in Delhi. Dahiya, the captain, was sacked for non-performance, replaced by Sehwag, with Minhas as his deputy. But this swift change was overshadowed by the insider/outsider debate engulfing Ajay Jadeja (critics also raised a larger moral issue of rehabilitating the tainted star ahead of a court ruling on the matter), Saket Bhatia and Puru Singh. There was much fake outrage about neglect of local talent (the under-15 Delhi team was coerced to play an official fixture wearing black armbands) as DDCA factions slugged it out in the battle for supremacy. These divisions surfaced once again when Ranji names were announced: the pre-season camp for probables became a cricket mela as all pressure groups had to be accommodated.

Observers feel the problem with Delhi is not of finding promise or potential but of performance. Individually, the boys are skilled. Most have played for India at different levels, but collectively they have little to show for their efforts. Whether they are to blame or the bosses at Kotla are responsible is irrelevant — the fact is Delhi is in deep slump. They have star players who are in decent jobs; the team has sponsorship and high profile coaches; Delhi is an established Test centre and there is generous media attention. But instead of using these opportunities and being up there as a frontline team, the DDCA is completely on the backfoot.

Sanjay Bangar, the new captain of Railways, is a committed cricketer. — Pic. V. GANESAN-

Contrast this with the honest effort of the Railways who deliver, despite being a team of largely faceless and unfancied players. Bangar, captain this season instead of Abhay Sharma, sets an excellent example. He is non-fussy, low key but utterly professional and committed. His opening partner Pagnis and one drop T. P. Singh are flamboyant, neither hesitates to put bat to ball. Yere Goud at No. 4 is in the Bangar mould. He is followed by J. P. Jadav, a brutal, explosive and completely fearless striker, who slaughters anything short of top quality.

It sounds horribly old-fashioned but the basic strength of the Railways is because it is a team. Players are of equal rank, there is no general no sipahi, the 11 guys work together and are a united, cohesive lot. They have excellent work ethic, are outstanding in the field and that they have a well-balanced bowling attack is a huge help. The medium pace of Harvinder/Bangar/JP is backed by the quality spin of Kartik and Parida, the latter an underrated but very successful off-spinner.

In a way, the Delhi/Railways comparison shows up our continuing obsession with cricketers instead of cricket. We adore and admire individuals, all of us are devoted subjects of superstars but don't have the same respect for cricket. India's love for cricket is a celebrity driver and sustained by the celebration of personal achievements. Someone remarked, quite correctly in my opinion, that India is happy even if India loses — provided Sachin makes runs.

This could be an extreme example to give but neglect of Ranji reveals our apathy, disinterest and an indifference. The absence of top players dilutes quality of play and provides an incorrect assessment of players because of which ordinary people rise to the top, only to be found out in better company. But we all know this, and, given the tight international schedule, it is difficult to get Sachin to play in Valsad or Sourav to appear in Siliguri. With top players missing, Ranji does not attract fans and even Elite group matches resemble club games.