Time to prioritise domestic cricket to sustain India’s talent pool

The burgeoning influence of the Indian Premier League has meant that the domestic calendar in India has been shortchanged, time and again.

Published : Jun 23, 2023 16:54 IST - 5 MINS READ

Red-ball giants: Saurashtra, under captain Jaydev Unadkat (pic, left) continued its stupendous form in red-ball cricket, beating Bengal in the final at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata to win the 2022-23 Ranji Trophy.
Red-ball giants: Saurashtra, under captain Jaydev Unadkat (pic, left) continued its stupendous form in red-ball cricket, beating Bengal in the final at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata to win the 2022-23 Ranji Trophy. | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

Red-ball giants: Saurashtra, under captain Jaydev Unadkat (pic, left) continued its stupendous form in red-ball cricket, beating Bengal in the final at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata to win the 2022-23 Ranji Trophy. | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

The Indian Premier League window is never tinkered with, although it could get longer. So do the Indian team’s international fixtures at home, depending on India’s other bilateral commitments.

Amidst all this, the men’s domestic cricket calendar — supposedly the backbone of Indian cricket — ends up getting the shorter end of the stick time and again.

How else can anyone explain the following? With the Ranji Trophy knockouts being played in June 2022, after the Omicron variant of COVID-19 shrank the premier domestic championship to three league games per team, 2021–22 saw a late end to a domestic season. The subsequent season ended with the Ranji Trophy final in February 2023.

With the beginning of the Duleep Trophy on June 28, the 2023–24 season will see an early start to the domestic calendar, which will once again take the backseat with the return of the ODI World Cup to India after well over a decade. Considering the need to hand over World Cup venues for a facelift ahead of the World Cup, set to start on October 5, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) decided to begin the domestic season towards the end of June with the inter-zonal tournaments. As a result, the Duleep Trophy will be played in June–July, and the Prof. DB Deodhar Trophy, the inter-zonal one-day trophy, will commence on July 24.

While both of these tournaments returned last season in a tweaked knockout format, the fact that the BCCI is at least making an effort to ensure the legacy tournaments are organised should be acknowledged.

Moreover, with the IPL window likely to keep getting longer, the BCCI will have no option but to start the domestic season early before the onset of the monsoon all over the country. It is understood that the ploy of staging inter-zonal tournaments is likely to persist for the next few years, with the head coach Rahul Dravid and the National Cricket Academy chief V.V.S. Laxman at the forefront of planning.

Once the inter-zonal tournaments are held early, it can give ample time to avoid India-A fixtures, once they resume, clashing with the Ranji Trophy knockouts. Besides, the key players returning from injuries can be tried out at the start of a new season. “I am absolutely in favour of starting the season early with the Duleep and the Deodhar Trophy. It ensures that all the tournaments are swiftly organised, and it spaces out the domestic programme well,” says Kiran More, the former India wicketkeeper who, as a Mumbai Indians talent scout, watches domestic cricket from close quarters all year around.

While More doesn’t find any issues with scheduling, “with an eye on India’s international calendar,” he hopes that the BCCI and the staging associations end up converting the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, the inter-state men’s T20 championship, into a spectacle, starting with this year’s edition that clashes with the World Cup.

“Most of the time, even the Mushtaq Ali Trophy, featuring most of the players that go on to play in the IPL later in the season, sees not more than 50 of us watching it from the sidelines,” More says.

“The onus is more on the state associations than the BCCI to create a buzz locally and draw spectators to the stadiums. The BCCI can create razzmatazz like the IPL with music playing, and the state associations should activate campaigns to get spectators to the ground.

It will not only bring domestic cricket into the limelight but also allow the players to get a feel of a mini-IPL.”

Over the last few years, the fact that the Mushtaq Ali Trophy has to be played ahead of the IPL Player Auction to facilitate the franchises’ talent-scouting exercise has resulted in the Ranji Trophy being pushed back.

Over the last decade, the premier first-class championship has started in October, November, December, and even January at times due to various reasons.

“In an ideal world, everyone would want a set window for the Ranji Trophy, considering its importance. Understandably, there have been times when the domestic calendar is planned to be in sync with the international calendar, but the majority of other countries don’t do it,” says Surendra Bhave, the former domestic stalwart who has coached various teams over the last decade after serving as a national selector during India’s triumphant 2011 World Cup campaign.

“If the Ranji Trophy is played in a set window, it will help the players much more to plan their annual training plan. I don’t think tinkering with the calendar is deliberate. There are so many logistical and practical constraints, but if we can find a way to freeze the Ranji Trophy window, it will certainly help the domestic cricket fraternity.”

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Bhave’s words may end up being prophetic since the BCCI’s cricketing hierarchy has been contemplating a late start to the Ranji Trophy since the last season to exploit the additional window for the knockouts.

As a result, the Ranji Trophy, which is set to begin on January 5 next year this time around, may well see a mid-December to early January start in the future.

The rationale behind such a plan is to possibly clash the Ranji Trophy knockouts with the IPL preparation window so that, barring the eight teams in the knockouts, players from other teams can join the pre-IPL camps.

The additional window may also help the BCCI give an additional day’s break from the existing three-day gap between games, at least during the latter half of the league stage.

If the talent feeder line has to persist, domestic calendar must be front and centre of Indian cricket again.

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