The recent Test series win against Australia threw up a new, unlikely hero.
While the trophies keep piling in the cupboards of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), there is one important piece of silverware which was contested for recently — the Ranji Trophy. Vidarbha (the defending champions) and Saurashtra locked horns for the magnificent trophy in the final at Nagpur.
No matter what the IPL and its many ‘me-toos’ across the globe have to offer for fans looking for a quickie, it is tournaments like the Ranji Trophy in India, the Sheffield Shield in Australia and the County Championship in England that throw up quality cricketers. Ranji Trophy, in itself, is the University that produces graduates ready to play a role in the future of Indian Test cricket. No matter what entertainment the ODIs and T20s offer, eventually it is Test cricket that separates the men from the boys.
Pre-90s, when age group tournaments took over as the ones talent spotters used to find the players of the future, Indian cricket was structured in three groups. The Cooch Behar Trophy (for schoolboys), the Rohinton Baria Trophy for varsities and the Ranji Trophy. The Cooch Behar and Rohinton Baria tournaments produced many talented cricketers like Pankaj Roy, Polly Umrigar, Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, the Amarnath brothers and Kapil Dev.
In effect, these two tournaments were the prep schools for Indian cricket while the Ranji Trophy, the national championship of cricket in India was the University. Though the Cooch Behar tournament still exists as an under-19 avatar, university cricket is dead and buried under the debris of age group tournaments like the under-23 championship. Today Indian cricket is structured such that the Ranji Trophy is the final feeder that throws up graduates into the finishing school of cricket — the IPL.
There is no doubt that the IPL, played as the shortest form of the game, has given Indian cricketers a platform to play with the best talent in the world. That is the tournament’s biggest contribution. The two-month league exposes young talent on a mini world stage and makes heroes out of unknown players, giving them huge financial benefits. The Ranji Trophy, on the other hand, gives local talent a different kind of platform, one that prepares them for the ultimate examination in the game — Test cricket.
The recent Test series win against Australia threw up a new, unlikely hero. For one who is not on the wishlist of any IPL franchise, Cheteshwar Pujara, did himself and India proud when he returned with the Man of the Series award. It was Pujara’s tenacity and application, that he built over the years while playing the Ranji Trophy for Saurashtra that stood him in good stead against the finest bowling attack.
And what did Pujara do when he returned to India? He shrugged off travel fatigue and went straight to play the semi-final of the Ranji Trophy against Karnataka at Bengaluru. Eventually it was his unbeaten 131 that gave Saurashtra, the underdogs, an entry into the final, after conceding a slender first innings lead. Playing for the state team can give even the most experienced international player a different kind of high.
The master, Sachin Tendulkar played for Mumbai, under Samir Dighe (his junior) and got his team into the final of the 1999-2000 Ranji Trophy, scoring an unbeaten 233 runs against Tamil Nadu. He followed it up with another ton, against Hyderabad to clinch the trophy for Mumbai. Many years later, Tendulkar said that his innings in the semi-final was one of the most memorable knocks he had played.
While the packed international calendar deprives most of the current Indian internationals from playing domestic championships, the BCCI could look at giving a small window for them to play a few games for their state teams. For youngsters, playing with and against the best in the land is a great experience even if it is for a few games. Sharing the dressing room with a Kohli or a Rahane is an experience no youngster will ever forget.
The final featuring International stars like Pujara and Umesh Yadav did not see too many footfalls at the Vidarbha Cricket Association stadium. The tournament has had a massive following of fans watching their favourite teams since its inception in 1934-35. The lack of crowds for the final shows how the value of this tourney has eroded from a spectator point of view. One hopes that the BCCI schedules this tourney to accommodate big names to lift its profile. Make no mistake, Ranji Trophy is the true al-ma mater of Indian cricket.