Time to review the formats

VINIT INDULKAR ... victim of the selection policy?-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH ?

The Duleep Trophy was introduced in 1960 as there were fewer Ranji league matches then, and there was international cricket only once in every two years. The top Indian cricketers were hungry to perform in the Duleep Trophy to retain their places in the Indian team.

The technical committee of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has been proposing and getting the Board to implement certain measures for making the format of the Duleep Trophy more acceptable to players and the national selectors. The problem is that not enough data was discussed before the proposals were made.

To get rid of State bias in the zonal selections for the Duleep Trophy, the BCCI introduced a system whereby the players were selected by the national selectors for five teams. Two teams were Elite `A' and `B' and three teams were Plate `A', `B' and `C'. When one tries to solve the problem without studying the situation, another problem crops up. None of the teams could combine and the system was shelved.

The Board then thought of getting the `A' teams from the other countries to participate in the tournament and that experiment, too, failed. The technical committee felt that the best way to make the tournament effective was to get the Indian international stars to participate. For that they had to schedule the tournament at the end of the season. Having played the entire season, the stars were unwilling to play in the Duleep Trophy.

The tournament is now scheduled before the Ranji Trophy. The moot question is, do we really need the Duleep Trophy? The tournament was introduced in 1960 as there were fewer Ranji league matches then, and there was international cricket only once in every two years. The top Indian cricketers were hungry to perform in the Duleep Trophy to retain their places in the Indian team.

The matches attracted huge crowds. A West Zone versus South Zone match would have the Brabourne Stadium packed to capacity. Once Pataudi got a double hundred against the strong West Zone team after Farokh Engineer dropped a sitter when the batsman top-edged Ramakant Desai. There were matches of quality and in the absence of television the coaches would urge boys to watch these matches. `Watch and improve' was their mantra.

In the 1990s, the international schedule changed. It became increasingly difficult for the established stars in the Indian team to play even Ranji Trophy matches. In the 10 years that Dravid has played 100 Tests, he could get to play only 11 Ranji Trophy matches. These international stars were replaced by mediocre players, and this continues to happen.

One still sees the names of players who are past their prime being picked for the Duleep Trophy. Last year Baroda's Jacob Martin was a standby but when Tendulkar withdrew, Martin was included in the final XI leaving the young Indulkar to sit in the reserves. This season again Martin was in the standby and he replaced captain Wasim Jaffer in the team. Again it was Indulkar who was dropped.

Though the Chairman of the national selection committee, Dilip Vengsarkar, assured that there would be no zonal bias, the composition of the zonal team suggests that it still exists. The only way to curb it is to ask Vengsarkar to attend the selection committee meetings of the zones as an observer. The arguments that the State representatives have may make him offer some solutions.

Three decades ago, despite the presence of Polly Umrigar and the knowledgeable Mamasaheb Ghorpade in the West Zone selection committee, not only were Sunil Gavaskar and Ashok Mankad dropped but also Ajit Wadekar was forced to announce retirement.

The political undercurrents, with the increase in match fees (Rs.20,000 per day) in the Duleep Trophy, are making it difficult for young performers to succeed oldies as, having been consistent for their States in the Ranji Trophy, their representatives in the zonal selection committees fight for their inclusion in the zonal team.

The solution could be to play the tournament after the Ranji Trophy mainly because of the prestige and not waste precious days in the beginning of the season. With the introduction of Elite and Plate in the Ranji Trophy, each team gets a minimum of six league games. If the Duleep Trophy is not played in October and November, the BCCI could think of adding a few league games in the Ranji Trophy format, thereby giving young talent in the State a few more games at the beginning of the season.

It is ridiculous to select Martin and Muzumdar in the West Zone team and drop a performer like Vinit Indulkar for two seasons. What have the zonal selectors gained? In fact, unless a current international player is keen to play the game to remain match fit, no zonal selection committee should consider players who have crossed 32 years of age. By selecting such players, youngsters are deprived of opportunities.

It is time to review the formats of Duleep and Ranji Trophies. The national coach talks of more opportunities to be given to the youngsters but the existing formats have enough loopholes for the zonal selection bias to persist and give more opportunities to players who will not even get into the list of 50 probables for the Indian team.