The Ranji Trophy is a fertile breeding ground, just that the gratification is not always instant. Remember a teenaged Deepak Chahar's sensational returns of 8 for 10 on his debut for Rajasthan against Hyderabad in 2010-11 or more recently, Shahbaz Nadeem's two 50-plus wicket seasons? It did not earn them immediate higher honours, but gave them a solid platform from where they have grown in stature. The grind is very different from that of an Indian Premier League (IPL), where many have flourished in one season only to fade away by the next edition.
After many ups and downs, Chahar became an international cricketer this year, and Nadeem has finally been named in the India squad for the upcoming Twenty20 Internationals against Windies. The critics may not always agree, but the romance of Ranji Trophy never fades. Every performance counts for something in the big picture. It's like a pilgrimage. Players and fans wait in anticipation for the season to arrive. The smell of green early in the morning, and the sound of ball hitting the bat, echoing around the ground arouses the senses, setting the tone for a few months where new records are made, thrilling games are witnessed and new talents emerge to leave a mark on the landscape.
The build up to the 2018-19 season has been exciting with already so many players impressing in the Duleep Trophy, Vijay Hazare Trophy and Deodhar Trophy. Those were, however, at best perfect starters. The real fun begins on Thursday (November 1), and the season will be remembered based on memories created between now and the final in February first week.
The 85th edition of the tournament is completely different in texture with 37 teams participating in it for the first time. The country's premier domestic competition had never been so inclusive. Thanks to the implementation of Lodha committee's recommendation nine new teams - Bihar, Pondicherry, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland - will be making their first-class debut. It is unprecedented for so many teams to be playing their maiden first-class match in an ongoing competition in a single season.
Most of these teams have hired three professionals each and done everything realistically possible to be prepared, but one argument is that the new entrants devalue the competition as they are not yet ready to compete at this level. Imagine the mismatch when the team that makes it to the knockouts from Plate Group faces a giant like Mumbai or Karnataka in the quarter-final. But, similarly imagine the possibility in the future of a raw talent from one of these teams making waves on the global stage.
With the nine teams granted full membership status only in July this year, there have been many logistical nightmares. Sourav Ganguly, BCCI's technical committee head, has even made his displeasure with the format of Ranji Trophy public. But all that is now in the past. It is important to embrace these teams and collectively ensure that they get better and expand India's talent pool.
These teams need not look beyond the traditionally smaller associations like Gujarat and Vidarbha, who have won the Ranji Trophy in the recent past. They have shown that with long-term planning and right mix of talent any team can stake claim on the title. While Gujarat beat Mumbai in 2016-17, Vidarbha got the better of Delhi and then beat Rest of India in the Irani Cup the following season. The playing field has never been this level in the past. Even the way teams like Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh among others have heavily invested in grass roots is refreshing.
With many performers not available in the first part of the season because of India A's tour of New Zealand and India's engagement in Australia, the field is once again open for any team to take early lead. For example, Shreyas Iyer, who led Mumbai to Vijay Hazare Trophy title, will not be available for at least the first two Ranji matches. At the other end of the spectrum, R Ashwin will have at least three games to get acquainted with the longer format before flying to Australia for the four-Test series.
Madhya Pradesh will start a new chapter after Devendra Bundela retired earlier this year, as will Jammu and Kashmir under Irfan Pathan. A few feathers have already been ruffled in the Bengal camp, who now have Arun Lal as mentor, with Manoj Tiwary deciding to step down as captain after the first game. Like always all eyes will be on the upcoming names. Subhman Gill and Anmolpreet Singh have caught the attention of national selectors, and will face a new challenge of carrying the Punjab batting forward in the absence of Yuvraj Singh. Nitish Rana and Dhruv Shorey will be expected to unburden Gautam Gambhir of the responsibility as Delhi's batting leader.
This is a glorious period in Indian cricket with so many promising talents making rapid progress, but this begs a question. What does it really mean in the overall context? Iyer, a proven big match player has led Mumbai's batting fortune in red-ball cricket over the last few seasons, but is yet to be rewarded with a Test cap. He is back in the Indian T20 team, but will a good show there and then subsequently in the Ranji Trophy open the World Cup door for him, with the team management seemingly locked on their middle-order options? What exactly would the Karnataka duo of Karun Nair and Mayank Agarwal be thinking?
With no 'A' series scheduled for a long period after the tour of New Zealand, the focus would shift to the 2020 Under-19 World Cup by the end of the season. How would the performers be rewarded? Well, Chahar and Nadeem are good enough examples for all involved to stay motivated.
Anyways, the focus of the teams will be entirely on getting the composition right. With five teams set to qualify for quarter-finals from Group A and Group B, the competition is tougher among the top teams.
Effectively, nine teams in each group will not only have to think about their leg, but also have to keep an eye out on the other group. It's an interesting proposition because never have teams had to deal with such equations. Similarly, with two teams qualifying from Group C, what motivation do those with no chance of going through have. Wouldn't it be better for them to end at the bottom and get relegated to Plate Group, beat the lesser fancied teams and make it to the quarterfinal in 2019-20?
The next three months will have answers to these questions. So, hold your breath and gear up for a season of many firsts and surprises.