Multiple openers dazzled, a plethora of records tumbled, a few T20 World Cup contenders proved their fitness and Mumbai staged a dramatic turnaround from the forgetting outing in the shortest format a month earlier, in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, to lift the title. Still, despite these positives, the this season will be remembered largely for the lack of purpose in organising the domsetic one-day tournament amidst the pandemic.
To give it to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, its affiliates, especially the seven centres which hosted the tournament, the medical teams, the officials and, most importantly, the players, it was good to see the domestic season not just being restricted to the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, which now serves as the trial tournament ahead of the annual IPL auction.
But in a season that’s going to be relevant for the T20 World Cup and the World Test Championship final to an extent, to prefer a one-day tournament over the Ranji Trophy was incomprehensible. No doubt the pandemic played its part in the BCCI mandarins’ decision to restrict the domestic season to limited overs’ tournaments, but did they have the will to risk hosting the first-class tournament?
The first-class seasons in neighbouring Pakistan and Sri Lanka went unscathed, but the BCCI didn’t even get the Ranji Trophy going. A few prominent associations had suggested a shortened Ranji Trophy, with nine instead of six hubs for the league stage followed by the knockouts stage. It may have resulted in perhaps the first week of the IPL overlapping with the Ranji Trophy, but a majority of players wouldn’t have minded.
But instead of taking the additional risk — and the burden of additional costs of maintaining increased number of biosecure hubs for a longer duration — the BCCI chose the easiest way out. It resulted in a majority of primary stakeholders wondering about the purpose of the tournament.
This correspondent interacted with several players, officials, state association officials and coaches, and virtually all of them were unanimous in their preference for the Ranji Trophy over the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Understandably, none of them were willing to speak on record, fearing the impact of ruffling feathers within the hierarchy.
A majority of them maintained that in a season with growing uncertainty over payment for domestic cricketers, a shortened Ranji Trophy — even with three guaranteed league games — would have resulted in at least threefold hike in match fees, for players and officials alike.
Moreover, with the IPL squads having been selected and India not supposed to play ODIs for at least the next eight months following the three games against England later in the current series, the cricketers were struggling for context.
The only ones who gave their best were those on the fringe of international selection or on a comeback curve to international cricket. Bhuveshwar Kumar and Shreyas Iyer, for instance, proved their fitness in the league stage before joining India’s squad, Devdutt Padikkal took yet another giant stride towards joining the long list of potential opening batsmen in India’s blues and Prithvi Shaw made a strong statement that he is far from being finished after losing his place in India’s side. Beyond these big names, however, there was little to gain for the domestic cricket fraternity from the tournament.
The BCCI was also not forthcoming about positive COVID-19 test results, unlike in the build-up to IPL 2020, when the board issued official updates.
Despite the lack of context, it was commendable to see the manner in which Prithvi Shaw and head coach Ramesh Powar combined to turn the tables around for Mumbai. Powar was appointed coach of the team 72 hours before the squad’s departure for Jaipur for the league stage.
And, sensing that Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav would have to be released after the league stage, Powar convinced the selection panel to appoint Shaw as Shreyas Iyer’s deputy. The move worked to perfection as Shaw took to the additional responsibility like a duck to water.
In four matches he led Mumbai in, his scores were 227 not out (vs Puducherry, league stage) — the highest individual score in the tournament’s history, 185 not out (vs Saurashtra, QF), 165 (vs Karnataka, SF) and 72 (vs Uttar Pradesh, Final). Not only did Shaw resurrect himself after the torrid time he faced during the IPL and in Australia, but he also won the mini-battle against Padikkal to emerge as the tournament’s leading run-scorer with a whopping tally of 827 runs at an astounding average of 206.75.
To Powar’s credit, after ensuring that he had the first 15 of his choice before boarding the flight, he also managed to convince the players to keep their ego battles out of the field and play for each other on the field. It resulted in Mumbai dominating the tournament a month after finishing at the bottom of the group in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
Despite Mumbai’s glorious turnaround and a young Uttar Pradesh unit’s equally remarkable run to the final, the 2021 edition of the Vijay Hazare Trophy will go down in the annals of Indian cricket as one that served little purpose. The only purpose it did was to cater to the BCCI vote bank of having ticked a box of hosting another domestic tournament in a challenging period.
While the women’s and junior tournaments are far from having concluded, the Vijay Hazare Trophy final also brought to an end the shortest senior domestic season in well over five decades.
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