Going out of fashion

Sourav Ganguly may not have made a great impact, but must have found his Glamorgan stint useful.-K.R. DEEPAK

TO yesterday's cricketers county cricket was a big thing, securing a contract was itself a colossal triumph. Those days not many got an opportunity to travel abroad to play and if success was achieved, however moderate, on the circuit it was cherished like a badge of honour, treasured as titles bestowed on friendly princes by the angrez.

Apart from the Indian angle, usually sporadic and limited to a few players, much was made at that time of Yorkshire vs Lancashire and feats of obscure Jacks and equally unknown Johns were prominently featured in our major newspapers. County scores were printed in great detail on the sports page while Ranji matches, played locally, were ignored.

County cricket was looked up to because, apart from our slavish devotion to Lord's and Leeds, it was considered a magnificent, world-class stage where the best in the field participated and performed. In an era when Tests were played once every two years this was a chance for cricketers to test themselves and find out where they stood in comparison with colleagues and competitors from other international countries.

Also, and this was an argument with considerable merit, county cricket was an education, some sort of a finishing school for players for polishing their game. The exposure to varying conditions in England, the treacherous swing under grey skies and seaming tracks left damp with moisture, taught discipline and tightened technique — and sub-continent players learnt it was suicidal to plant the front foot down the track and try hitting through the line.

Irfan Pathan must have gained good experience by playing in the county circuit.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

County cricket was professional in the sense a player's worth was determined strictly by performance and as the hired pro the overseas player had an added responsibility to deliver big time. Coaches demanded extra commitment from them and this extra burden hardened players, taught them it wasn't enough to make runs, they also had to lift the level of their less gifted team-mates.

Besides the direct cricket benefits of playing in this tough atmosphere, the unique culture of county cricket had a profound impact on a cricketer's growth. Indian stars, pampered at home, found the grind irksome, as rich kids do in a regimented boarding school. In England they were on their own, unassisted by a platoon of helpers, and had to carry their own bags, wash their socks, do the cooking, drive themselves and endure sharp commands of the coach who made no concessions for their star status. For players used to a certain level of luxury and higher standard of living this was a come down, a taste of socialism for the sahibs.

Some Indian players went to England for cricket, others were motivated by money or merely encouraged by the prospect of escaping the summer heat. Of all the players who made the journey few distinguished themselves except Bishan Bedi, Azhar, Dravid and Kumble, the rest had mixed luck for different reasons. Some failed to adjust to the cold, others were defeated by the crushing monotony of seven days a week cricket or simply could not motivate themselves when surrounded by mediocrity. Almost all felt enriched by the experience but returned physically sapped, complained about the condescending English, the miserable weather or the lager.

Suddenly, about a decade ago, county cricket went out of fashion like grey coloured safari suits made of polyster, its decline caused by an enlarged international schedule that now stretched into April/May and offered impressive financial rewards. After playing eight months in a year, and making decent money, top players give England a miss because they neither had the time nor the strength to play every other day and then drive long hours on clogged motorways around the countryside. Also, this point made forcefully by SMG, what use is wearing three sweaters, eating cold food and playing popat sides? What made the situation worse was English players started treating county cricket lightly, almost behaving like our stars do in Ranji. Often, the centrally contracted players would gave matches a miss, they were rested in national interest because England cricket authorities wanted them fit and fresh for international games. This further devalued a system already suffering a quality problem but soon a move was started for revamping the system. For retaining relevance, county cricket underwent an image makeover and as part of the upgrade it created two levels of competition, allowed two foreign players in each team and permitted short-term replacements. This led to a wave of cricket tourism (similar to medical tourism in Bangalore which attracts people from England for cheap heart bypass/kidney surgeries) as cricketers accepted short assignments to play a few games. This, explained a player, is just right because you have a holiday, avoid the heat in India and stay in touch by training and keeping fit. Left unmentioned was another indirect benefit: this arrangement was a convenient holiday (chance to visit museums, gardens or just chill) with enough cash for the wife to shop, perhaps not at Harrods, Knightsbridge but on Oxford Street.

County cricket may have lost some shine but remains useful experience because it still requires commitment and teaches respect for discipline. The professionalism of the circuit and its numerous demands are in sharp contrast to the unhurried pace of India's domestic cricket. Moreover, the edge of playing to earn a living keeps everyone on high alert; success is impossible unless the player is fully immersed in the system. Compare this to Ranji which is treated by top players as time pass, thought by many as irrelevant or unimportant. This year, with Ganguly/Pathan/Mongia/Harbhajan playing in England, county cricket once again attracted our attention. None of them has dominated cricket there, or enhanced their reputations, with performances being just about ordinary. Still, when the season starts in India, they'd be sharp and match fit — that in itself is a big plus.