Relevance of domestic cricket

AMRIT MATHUR

IT is fashionable to rubbish domestic cricket, and certainly there is much that needs mending, but to run it down completely would be unfair.

It would help, to get all sides of the picture, to look at the existing domestic structure through the fortunes of Balaji, Bangar and Parthiv Patel. Their careers provide a valuable insight into the mechanics, the plus and minus, of India's non-international cricket.

Much of what is wrong is illustrated by what happened to Balaji in a recent one-dayer. Here was a talented youngster making his international debut, selected for India on the basis of taking loads of wickets on the domestic circuit. But what happened? Total, utter disaster. He got pasted, went for plenty and more in four overs and, this is the sad part, looked woefully inadequate.

The tragedy is, more than Balaji, the system is responsible for this shattering initiation. Balaji did all the right things — got into Ranji at a young age, ran in fast and rattled batsmen. This, naturally, ignited his ambition and he eagerly looked forward to a productive role with the Indian team. But the catch is Balaji is not ready, his success in Ranji was against ordinary batsmen playing ordinary cricket whereas international cricket has batsmen who sort you out in a few balls. Balaji was, in effect, a lightweight boxer suddenly pushed into the ring to fight Lennox Lewis. The harsh lesson to be learnt? Ranji does not prepare players sufficiently for international cricket, the gap between the two is too massive.

Why this happens is well known, and the ills plaguing domestic cricket are well chronicled. Everyone is aware of poor wickets, poor conditions and facilities which could be better. Moreover, interest is low because the quality of cricket is low, for which the absence of top players (away playing international cricket) is largely responsible. The end result is Ranji, with too many teams and too many players, produces low quality cricket.

Runs scored don't mean much because batsmen crush spinners but are untested against pace, which is vital for assessing talent. Record books are full of players topping 1000 domestic runs in a season but failing miserably to make contact with the ball when picked against foreign sides.

But this does not mean Ranji entirely lacks merit. That it occasionally produces genuine talent is demonstrated, for instance, by the stunning success of Sanjay Bangar. He made the Indian team after toiling for a decade in Ranji, that too at 28 when players are considered over the hill. Despite the late start, Bangar adapted splendidly both in Tests and one-dayers, he might lack the wonderful natural spark of Sourav/ Sehwag or Sachin but his cricket is marked by grit and fierce determination. Bangar is a crusty pro, unflappable but understated, someone who surmounted the system and developed his craft by slogging at the first class level. Bangar is a creation of the system, he represents a small number who utilise the limited opportunities on offer. These champions understand that cricket is fame, flourish and flair but a tough grind.

That, actually, is the reality of Indian cricket — what comes to us on TV is a big myth, an enormous hoax because that is mere gloss, an alluring, artificial, unreal world. In Ranji, and all first class cricket for that matter, there is no glitter, no glitz, no glamour. Missing are overflowing crowds, sponsors, experts — there is no nasha or noise, no passion or paisa. Ranji is unrewarding and unexciting, it isn't the commodity bought and sold for millions of rupees, it's not even the cricket which has caught the attention of the nation.

While international cricket is a magical world embracing entertainment and fashion, the ground reality of domestic cricket is completely different. Here players struggle to get noticed, and getting a minor mention in the newspaper or an approving nod from the selectors is a big achievement. Cricket, for most players, is an avenue for moving forward in life by landing a job, even if it is only a lowly-paid clerical appointment. Ranji players don't make millions: they make do with 6000 rupees per game and an additional four grand deposited in a benevolent fund.

Then again, like Bangar, Parthiv Patel is another splendid advertisement for India's domestic cricket structure, more elaborate than anywhere else with tournaments starting for 13 year-olds. Parthiv rose to Tests touring practically every cricketing country with different Indian teams in four years, between 13 and 17. The Board's cricket network is a great stage which enables talent to rise, it puts talented Parthivs on the fast track to success and fame.

From this season Ranji has undergone radical change, the zonal structure abandoned and 15 top teams split into two groups to intensify competition. The real benefits of this advance may take time, but other issues need attention, and the most urgent relates to making first class cricket financially attractive. Higher money will add an edge to competition and automatically encourage players to work harder to raise overall standards.

Even otherwise, injection of cash into first class cricket is needed if only to ensure talent stays in the game. For some time now cricket jobs have dried up with Government cutting back on recruitment and the corporate world imposing a freeze on employment. If domestic cricket is to become a viable commercial option, then the only answer is either enhanced match fees or annual contracts. This becomes crucial because the domestic season (with graded Ranji, Duleep, Challenger and other tournaments) now stretches from October-November right through to April. Without sufficient financial reward, and no job, how does a player commit himself for such a long period of time?

Desperately required, therefore, is a long, hard look at domestic cricket. The problems are known and so are the solutions, it is a question of putting the correct inputs in place. The key input, however, is to approach the issue with an open mind and treat first-class cricket with respect. And to make a start, the focus of everyone, players and officials, must shift away from money-spinning international matches.