Indian domestic season: No Project Restart in sight

With the IPL mushrooming as the cash cow, a generation of Indian cricketers could afford a career in cricket without wearing the real blue cap that mattered the most for their predecessors.

Saurashstra captain Jaydev Unadkat and Cheteswar Pujara hold the Ranji Trophy in March 2020. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be a challenge to make the tournament happen this season.   -  Vijay Soneji


“Cricket is the last thing on anyone’s mind right now.”

“Let the disease be controlled first, cricket can wait.”

“Let us try and plan the return of cricket by staging the Indian Premier League first. If we can do that, the rest will follow.”

“Why should we bother about domestic cricket right now? We still have time.”

These are some of the representative statements during discussions with a variety of individuals concerned with cricket in India — from club cricketers to parents of teenagers to first-class cricketers to the administrators — ever since the pandemic brought the sport — just like everything else — to a standstill.

The most pertinent of these representative reactions was the last one, which obviously came from a Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) insider. “Why should we bother about domestic cricket right now? We still have time.”

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And as someone who has been passionately (and objectively as well) following domestic cricket in India for almost two decades, one couldn’t help but wonder that despite the pandemic having changed the world, it hasn’t changed the BCCI’s lackadaisical attitude towards domestic cricket a wee bit. Stepping stone to international cricket. The most competent structure. First aspiration of a young cricketer.

All these terms have been used for India’s domestic cricket circuit by pundits and players of repute for years. But the fact of the matter is, especially over the last decade, domestic cricket structure in India has been reduced to something less important: you just have to get it out of the way.

With the Indian Premier League (IPL) mushrooming as the cash cow — and the most (read only) important domestic tournament in the world of cricket — a generation of Indian cricketers could afford a career in cricket without wearing the real blue cap that mattered the most for their predecessors. The flipside of it is domestic cricket was further cornered in the priority list of the BCCI.

While the IPL deservedly has a full-fledged set-up with regard to marketing, branding and what not, the BCCI doesn’t even have a dedicated, small team to look after domestic cricket. Contrary to perception, domestic cricket is not just Ranji Trophy.

Kids during a cricket practice session n Kanpur. With the risks involved in congregating kids below 20 years of age, it would be a surprise if the BCCI doesn’t scrap all inter-state tournaments up to under-19 level for boys and girls for the forthcoming season.   -  Sandeep Saxena

 

Besides the premier first-class championship, the domestic season for senior men is supposed to consist of a conventional high-profile tie between two top outfits, a conventional inter-zonal first-class tournament which has been reduced to a joke in the recent past, two 50-over tournaments and an inter-state T20 tournament.

Add to that a host of tournaments in different formats for juniors (under-14, under-16, under-19 and under-23) and women and you can gauge how comprehensive and complex domestic cricket structure in India is. And it’s incredible how, despite very little interest in trying to promote it, it somehow gets into a sort of discorded rhythm year after year.

With the world having missed its beat for the last four months, the BCCI is no different. Naturally, with all the powerhouses in the BCCI concentrating either on getting their tenures extended or in trying to explore options of staging the postponed edition of IPL-2020, domestic cricket has found no takers this time around.

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As a result, even in mid-July, thousands of cricketers — boys and girls, men and women — aspiring to represent their states in domestic cricket, have no idea whether they can compete in inter-state competitions this year. Forget about playing matches, they don’t even know when and how they can officially resume training.

On June 11, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly wrote to the state associations in what was his first formal communication ever since the previous season came to an abrupt end in March with 168 matches (1 Irani Cup, 4 Vizzy Trophy and 163 women’s junior) not being played.

In that email, Ganguly had stated the BCCI will provide more details on the domestic structure “in two weeks” and also circulate standard operating procedure (SOP) to be adopted while training. Five weeks hence, neither have state associations heard anything substantial about the forthcoming domestic season nor have the SOPs been circulated.

The BCCI apex council meeting on July 17 is expected to discuss the domestic structure but with a host of other important discussions scheduled, like the tax rebate to be obtained from the central government for staging ICC events in India, one wonders if the meeting can devote any substantial time for the discarded baby of the house.

As things stand, there’s no way domestic cricket tournaments can start as per the conventional late August-early September window. And if resumption is possible in September/ October, obviously the attempts to stage the IPL — in India or overseas — is going to further push the senior men’s domestic season.

Assuming that the tournaments can start either in December or January, 2021, it would be prudent to scrap all the white-ball tournaments for a season and focus solely on hosting the Ranji Trophy. When it comes to the Ranji Trophy, with the number of teams having surged to 38 in the last couple of seasons, it would be a challenge.

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The most logical option of hosting the Ranji Trophy is to divide 28 teams in the Elite league five groups (6x3, 5x2). Each of these five groups can be assembled in a city with three venues and can play the league stage in five weeks.

Simultaneously, the 10 teams in Plate league can be involved in a knockout challenge (four rounds) with the winner qualifying for the Ranji knockouts. Top three teams from each of the five groups and the winner of the Plate challenge can then vie for Ranji knockouts with 16 teams.

This would reduce the number of rounds from the last year’s 12 (13 weeks) to nine (10 weeks), which could help them save some time. A similar format can be adopted for women’s two-day games and possibly for men and women’s Under-23 tournaments.

With the risks involved in congregating kids below 20 years of age, it would be a surprise if the BCCI doesn’t scrap all inter-state tournaments up to under-19 level for boys and girls for the forthcoming season. Let alone junior cricket, considering how little they have been focusing on domestic cricket and assuming the pandemic doesn’t subside for the next three months, it would be a miracle if domestic cricketers can vie for any honours this season.