Is Ranji a waste of time for established stars?

IF Sourav Ganguly has played about seven Ranji games in the past five years (and Sachin even less) it is not difficult to see why. The schedules of international cricket are killing and, strange as it may sound, it makes sense for star players to give the national championship a miss. After the England series Sourav went home for a few days, was called up for a Ranji game in Kolkata, then came to Delhi to play against the Railways. Which left him less than two days before reporting for the Zimbabwe series.

From the players standpoint, specially for established stars, Ranji is a waste of time. They are too busy and too tired, their places in the Test team are not in doubt - so why travel (perhaps by train) up country somewhere, stay in an ordinary hotel and play in ordinary conditions? No point, more so when there is no money as well.

The contrary, and romantic opinion, on this is players have an obligation to cricket, they MUST play, they owe this to their states, this is their job so nobody can be tired. Fair enough, but harsh ground realities must be kept in mind, one can't be blind to the actual conditions that fashion the attitudes of stars.

Sitting close to the boundary during the semi-final, as his team failed to chase Railways' huge total, Sourav spoke about what ails Ranji. Only two things need to be done, he said with emphasis. Improve wickets and improve money for domestic players. If these two ingredients are available, quality will rise and cricket will become competitive. And if this happens the rest is easy.

Sourav was visibly impressed by the Railways side, thought it was a very capable, all-round team. Best thing, he said, is the players combine very well, bat deep and have bowlers to bowl on all types of surfaces. The absence of a star player is an advantage not a handicap.

Sourav and others look at the Railways with respect because it has made the Ranji final two years running. This steady progress is not flukey, not an accident but rests on solid performance as reflected in decisive victories over Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Bengal. Among its players, Bangar is now in the big league after his sensational hundred at Nagpur; he deserves this success, having toiled manfully for many years. Kartik and Harvinder are also known, and with them are a set of others who have consistently made valuable contributions.

Amit Pagnis is a punishing left hander who thinks, even in a four-day match, that a dot ball is a blot on his character. His adventurism is balanced by the resolute Yere Goud who has tons of patience, sound technique and huge appetite for runs. Yere is grossly underrated but the sheer weight of his runs should make people sit up and take notice. Another one to watch is Tejinderpal Singh, a batting all rounder, a utility player who can slog or block, turn his arm over and is genuinely outstanding in the field.

The Railways are one of the best fielding sides in Ranji, this is a big bonus because batsmen don't normally repeat mistakes on friendly tracks. Parida, the off-spinner, is a mean bowler, he sticks to a nice offside line, rarely allows a free hit to midwicket and turns the ball sharply on most surfaces. Harvinder Singh put in a lot of work on unhelpful tracks, he bowled long spells and kept the ball on the offstump to test the batsmen.

The Bengal side had some impressive players as well, but once almost 600 were on the board they were effectively out of the game. Rohan Gavaskar, their captain, is poised and sensible, he knows his way around a cricket field and leads the team with authority. Bengal has reached this far in Ranji for the first time since the days of Arun Lal/Ashok Malhotra and the nucleus of a strong side is already visible.

Leading the pack of bright talent is S. Das, a batsman who made a positive impression in his first season, same with Sanyal, a sedate player in the middle order. Both come through with credit, and they lessen the pressure on Dewang and Rohan. Lahiri, the tall off spinner, picked wickets from a high arm (and clean) action which is a rarity nowadays.

Cricket in Kolkata is suffering a slump with jobs drying up and club contracts shrinking. These are difficult times, said Rohan, because cricketers are actually getting less money now than a few years ago. But Ranji players are compensated through a sponsorship deal with Chandi-Sona Chawanprash which gives them extra money.

Coach W. V. Raman is however hopeful about cricket coming through this crisis shortly. There is talent and with high quality players pushing up performance, there should be a surge soon, he feels. Raman himself is satisfied with his stint. Initially I was a bit unsure, he confessed, but as the season progressed we worked out our plans and are now a strong combination.

Raman is a clear thinking, articulate person, he is direct and has no axe or bat to grind. In his opinion domestic cricket needs a major overhaul, someone needs to fix it urgently before the structure collapses. Besides the usual problems (wickets, umpiring, money) Raman is deeply concerned about the lack of cricketing education among players. At times, even at the first class level, you have to teach basics like taking a start and to mark your place in the outfield. Players are obsessed with their game but are unaware about cricket.

How difficult is it to coach? I asked. It is complicated, he replied with a smile. You have to be an allrounder - the coach is not just a cricket expert but also a school teacher without a cane and a psychologist without a couch!