When Vidarbha lifted the Ranji Trophy on February 7 at Nagpur after a taut final against Saurashtra, it capped an extraordinary achievement.
Vidarbha’s second successive triumph — their maiden victory came last year — marked a decisive shift in domestic cricket, towards smaller centres.
Since the 2010-11 season, apart from Vidarbha, Rajasthan have won the country’s premier title twice and Gujarat once. Mumbai and Karnataka have won twice each. In the same period, Saurashtra have finished runners-up thrice.
This skew shows that the hegemony of traditionally power houses of the domestic cricket — particularly Mumbai, Karnataka, Delhi — is being steadily dismantled and ‘smaller’ associations are coming into their own.
For instance, Mumbai, who have won the Ranji Trophy a mind-boggling 41 times, could not register a single outright win this year and were beaten by Vidarbha in the pre-quarters. Karnataka came to grief against Saurashtra in the knockout stage.
Neither of this year’s finalists boast of many ‘stars’. The only current international player in Vidarbha’s ranks was fast bowler Umesh Yadav who played from the knockout stages because he couldn’t retain his place in the India team.
Saurashtra had high-scoring Cheteshwar Pujara, who doesn’t find a place in the national limited-overs’ teams, and an India-reject in captain Jaydev Unadkat.
While it is true that some major centres had key players on national duty — Virat Kohli from Delhi, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane from Mumbai, Ravichandran Ashwin from Tamil Nadu, Ravindra Jadeja from Saurashtra — the rise of smaller associations cannot be undermined.
This is reflected in the change in the attitude of players from non-traditional centres. “There was a time when these players would be overawed playing against us,’’ says former Mumbai captain Milind Rege. “That’s no longer the case. They take the field as equals.’’
There are three factors that have influenced this shift.
First, the secular development of cricket across the country from the grassroots upwards. The cash-rich Board of Control for Cricket in India has ploughed money into state associations to improve infrastructure, coaching and other support systems to spot and
Second, domestic cricket now provides reasonable livelihood and this is one big determinant in youngsters taking to the sport. One reason why Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Delhi dominated the game was because players could find jobs, playing for corporate or business houses. Money matters. After the collapse of princely patronage, it were the business houses that supported the players and the sport. Today, cricket in India is self-sustaining, and encouraging youngsters to venture into the sport, without worrying about their financial well-being.
The rise of players like MS Dhoni — who gave up a ticket collector’s job — has inspired waves of youngsters from the so-called boondocks of cricket to pursue their passion. And the self-belief to match the country’s best.
Today, the Indian team draws a bulk of talent from smaller cities and towns. Dhoni is from Jharkhand, Pujara and Jadeja from Saurashtra, the Pandya brothers from Baroda, Jasprit Bumrah from Gujarat, Yuzvendra Chahal from Haryana, Kuldeep Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar from Uttar Pradesh, Mohammed Shami from Bengal.
Launched in 2008, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is the third big factor in fuelling growth of cricket in smaller cities. An IPL contract is not only good for the bank balance but can also fast track a player into the national team.
Bumrah, for instance, played for the Mumbai Indians even before he made his first-class debut for Gujarat. IPL allows youngsters a chance to go up against top Indian and international talent, giving them a chance to hone their skills and reduces the fear of competition. IPL has contributed enormously to the richness of talent but there is a caveat: it has upstaged Ranji Trophy.
There were less than 1,000 people in the stadium when Vidarbha went up against Saurashtra in the final, which is a shame given how vital the Ranji and other domestic tournaments are for Indian cricket.
A two-fold effort is needed to improve the status of domestic cricket. It needs to be branded imaginatively and marketed aggressively, something that should not be too hard for BCCI. Also, big Indian names should be on the field to make Ranji Trophy more competitive and attractive to paying fans.
As a nursery of cricketing talent in India, the Ranji Trophy needs a leg-up not just perfunctory acknowledgement from the administration and players.