Green light for red-ball cricket

As the Ranji Trophy makes a comeback after a gap of almost two years, players and coaches are happy with the return of red-ball cricket.

Heady days: Bengal batsman Akash Deep fails to make the crease during their Ranji Trophy final between Bengal and Saurashtra at Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Rajkot on March 13, 2020.   -  Vijay Soneji

Ganesh Satish has endured a lot in his playing career. He moved from Karnataka to Vidarbha for more game time but is now a two-time Ranji Trophy winner.

However, the uncertainty over the future of the Ranji Trophy because of the pandemic had downed his spirits.

“I had almost given up hope on the Ranji happening this season,” he says.

But with the Board of Control for Cricket in India announcing that the Ranji Trophy, after almost a two-year-long break, would return to action from February 16, Satish, now, sees some light at the end of the tunnel.

READ: Ranji Trophy to be held in two phases - BCCI

“I am very excited. It is a boost to all first-class cricketers. It has been almost two years since we played red-ball cricket,” Satish, a 14-season veteran, says. “Our careers are short. Every year we miss is an opportunity lost to show that you can play Test cricket for India. We have continued to train though there were no camps. The preparations had taken a hit due to Omicron.”

Ready for action: Seasoned coach Chandrakant Pandit (right) and Vidharbha captain Faiz Fazal are looking forward to renewing their love affair with the red ball.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Though the BCCI had compensated 50 percent match fees to first-class cricketers for the games missed due to the pandemic, quite a few were not eligible for the grant. “Another season without the Ranji would have hurt our finances. We got compensation last year, but only those with 40 plus games got a decent amount, for the rest it was a small amount. Most players make a living out of this,” says Satish.

The batter also revealed that the players have not received the BCCI’s gross revenue share since 2018. “It’s been a while since we got the revenue share. If you increase the match fee, and you don’t get the revenue share, it all comes back to the same amount.”

Domestic players are paid in two installments – a certain amount per match day on a match-by-match basis and the remaining calculated on a pro-rata basis based on the share from the BCCI’s gross revenue pool.

The tough phase

Satish’s teammate and Vidarbha captain Faiz Fazal, too, was idling at home in Nagpur. “There were times when I thought yeh kya ho raha hai? (What is happening?) There was so much uncertainty and confusion about everything,” Fazal recalls.

“There were times when I really thought that my cricket was over and that I will never play again. Fortunately, I had set up a gym at home during the first lockdown in 2020, so I could keep myself a bit busy and there are open spaces in my colony, where I could jog a bit. Those were my ways of unwinding from the uncertainty.”

Fazal, who quit playing T20s a few years back, says: “For us cricketers, the ground is everything and if you cannot play first-class cricket for nearly two years, you are bound to be demoralised. I was not depressed, but definitely heartbroken with the way things were moving.”

Moment of triumph: Jaydev Unadkat led Saurashtra to the Ranji Trophy title on March 13, 2020, days before India entered a national lockdown because of COVID-19.   -  Vijay Soneji

 

In 2019-20, the last concluded domestic season, a cricketer earned Rs 35,000 per match-day for Ranji Trophy and Vijay Hazare Trophy, and Rs 17,500 for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Each team was assured of eight Ranji games and six each in limited-overs tournaments.

“I have a young family, so I need to look after them as well. Other professionals have the work from home option, but for cricketers, the 22-yards is our workstation. If you are unable to do your work for almost two years, how are you supposed to feel?” he questions.

But Fazal, too, has something to look forward to. “It is an extraordinary feeling. Thanks to the BCCI that finally, we got some opportunity to play in these tough times,” he says. “We will get a couple of weeks to practise and then we start the tournament. It is the same for everyone. But I am just happy that we will finally get some red-ball cricket.”

Living on hope

The flamboyant Chirag Jani understands the BCCI’s predicament. “So many cases were coming up in bilateral cricket series, and IPL, where the number of teams is much less. We have 38 teams playing in our domestic system; imagine the risk,” he says. “But it is great that finally, there will be a full season.”

Soon after the BCCI postponed the Ranji Trophy in January, Jani’s teammate and Saurashtra captain Jaydev Unadkat had tweeted: “Dear red ball, please give me one more chance… I’ll make you proud, promise!”

READ: Ranji Trophy: Ray of hope for plate teams

Those were tough times, but Unadkat did not lose hope.

“Red ball cricket is definitely different from white-ball cricket. When we started training with the red ball, it was initially hard to get back the rhythm. It requires a different skillset, so you need to get used to it. We were slowly getting into the zone. It would take at least two or three games to get back into shape, whenever the tournament starts. At the local level too, we have mostly played white-ball cricket, so yes, it will be difficult, but as a professional player, you would want to strike form within a couple of games,” Unadkat had said.

In January, minutes after the postponement, Unadkat had a chat with his teammates. “I had a brief chat with everyone that for now, it has been postponed and we can only hope that we have the tournament. So, I told them that we should try and get ready with whatever time we have. The target was to individually work on our skills and to get better so be ready for it. Everyone was on the same page and that’s how it has been for the last couple of years. We have been living on hope.”

Take it as it comes

“It feels really good as we will be playing red-ball cricket after two years. We are really looking forward to it,” says Tamil Nadu captain Vijay Shankar. “From a professional point of view, you can’t give excuses that we have not played red-ball cricket for a very long time. We will have to try and adapt to the conditions and challenges. Red ball and white ball are two different formats, but I hope we get some time to train, and then we should be read.”

Blessed lot: “We want to play cricket and we were lucky to have got a chance to play – be it white ball or club cricket,” says Tamil Nadu captain Vijay Shankar.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

While there was no first-class cricket for nearly 24 months, Vijay is happy that the players “at least” got the opportunity to play “some form” of cricket. “We can’t do anything about those things. They were not in our control. In a way, we were happy that we at least got to play some form of cricket. It was very important at that time, so personally, I won’t complain. At the end of the day, we want to play cricket and we were lucky to have got a chance to play – be it white ball or club cricket,” adds Shankar.

More games needed

Chandrakant Pandit, one of the most successful domestic coaches, feels the Board should have looked at starting the Ranji Trophy earlier in the season.

“Ranji Trophy had not happened for a while, and to get a window for the tournament was important. I was sure the BCCI would think about all the players, umpires, scorers, and others involved. It was feasible. It is a major tournament in domestic cricket. We should be always thinking about starting the Ranji early,” Pandit says.

“Ranji is the base of Indian cricket talent, and we may not be able to see all the talent in the IPL.”

ALSO READ: Ranji Trophy groups announced; final in June

Jammu and Kashmir coach Sanjeev Sharma echoes similar sentiments. “Not long ago, the domestic season would start with the Ranji Trophy and then the limited-overs format would follow.

“I think it is time to go back to that calendar again. We should start with Ranji Trophy around October, followed by the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and the Vijay Hazare Trophy,” Sharma, a former India fast bowler, says.

Bengal coach Arun Lal is happy that the tournament will finally happen but would have preferred more matches in the group stage.

“Thankfully it is happening. You cannot have two years without the red-ball competition because it can end careers,” Lal says.

He took Bengal to the final of the Ranji Trophy in the 2019-20 season, losing to Saurashtra just a week before the country went into a lockdown in March 2020.

There has been no red-ball cricket in the country since.

“We are all very happy that Ranji Trophy is happening, except for the fact that matches have been reduced. It gets a bit more difficult for teams to qualify. There are downsides to it, but I am grateful at least it is happening. Every team will at least get three games,” the former India international adds.

With not much time left for the tournament, Lal admits it is a huge challenge. “It is always a challenge to get the best from your team and play well. Now, the level of competition is so high that the team that plays well on a particular day wins. It is stressful, and you must be on top of your game. At the same time, staying relaxed is important. We had terrible luck in the T20s and one-dayers, even though we played very well. But we did not have results to show, so we are hoping to do well in the Ranji Trophy,” Lal says: “Only three red-ball games in a year, it is very little. But I suppose, they did not have enough time for it.”