“Winning the Ranji Trophy would be the biggest achievement of my career. I know playing for India was a big high for me because as an individual, you get to achieve that. I have always been a team-man. Winning the trophy for the team has been a big thing. I have been leading Vidarbha since my age-group cricket days. And to lead a Ranji team is not an easy thing," an elated Vidarbha skipper, Faiz Fazal, had said after he led the side to its maiden Ranji triumph.
Fazal is among the only three players in the Vidarbha side to have an India cap. Fazal made his debut against Zimbabwe last year in an ODI, made a half-century, and was unceremoniously dumped by India whose policy of bringing in fresh green talents and omitting them before they play a nominal amount of games has often been discussed.
The other two are Wasim Jaffer and Umesh Yadav. Jaffer is Ranji Trophy's highest run-scorer, a domestic giant whose Test career never really took off although he got quite a few games to establish his credentials. Umesh Yadav, on the the other hand, is in India's Test squad to South Africa and is a regular fixture in the Indian team now.
But it is the younger brigade in the Vidarbha squad that gained attention, and rightly so, with their performances. Rajneesh Gurbani was a spectacle to watch with his swing and seam, a rare delight in India's domestic cricket scenario. Akshay Wadkar’s fearless batting in the finals — notching up his maiden First-Class ton — was another treat to watch. Sanjay Ramaswamy is calmness personified and Aditya Sarwate, son of a bed-ridden father, is a gritty youngster with his steely 79 in the final hogging headlines.
Vidarbha's was a “collective effort” but it isn't like there weren't individual contributors. In Ranji Trophy's history — heavily lop-sided the Mumbai way — triumphs by unheralded sides are often attributed to a “collective effort” and the individual contributors are forgotten. The team is hailed, cash awards are announced and in a week, the talk goes back to the wild, ferocious hitter from Delhi, the steady seam bowler from Mumbai or the mystery leggie from Karnataka.
Where do these small town guys vanish? Of course, there is the rags to riches story of Hardik Pandya from Gujarat (2016 Ranji Trophy winners) although his success did not come from the Ranji Trophy, the rise of Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan from a Baroda outfit that won in 2000/01 and the emergence of Praveen Kumar, Suresh Raina and Piyush Chawla from winners of 2005/06, Uttar Pradesh. But the success stories are few and far between.
The toil and sheer amount of hard work that goes into the development of these small town boys often lie forgotten.
Roll back to Railways’ Ranji Trophy triumph in 2004/05. A bunch of talented individuals were the corner stones of their unexpected triumph that year — Harvinder Singh, Amit Pagnis, Yashpal Singh and JP Yadav.
Pagnis was the second-highest run-scorer that season with 718 runs in 9 matches at an average of 51.28 while Yashpal Singh made 605 runs at 86.42 with three tons. Yet, nothing came out of these performances. Pagnis’ Wikipedia page has just a single line about him which does not even state which Ranji side he plays for.
JP Yadav, a pace bowling all-rounder, was the hero of Railways’ triumphant season. He made 584 runs at an average in excess of 40 and was the third highest wicket-taker with 36 scalps in 9 matches at an average of 20.02. It is worth mentioning that these performances came at a time India were in the hunt for seam bowling all-rounders.
Yadav was already a capped player (in ODIs) having represented India in 2002, but his all-round show did not earn him a call-up to the Test squad. Like Pagnis, Yadav's Wikipedia page too is a desert with not more than two lines describing him.
In 2010/11 and 2011/12, Rajasthan hogged the limelight with back to back Ranji Trophy triumphs. The architects of those accomplishments (skipper Hrishikesh Kanitkar — forever the man who hit a four to win an India Pakistan ODI — aside) were another group of young players in Robin Bist, Aniket Choudary and Pankaj Singh.
Bist made more than a 1000 runs (the only player in the 2011/12 in the season) at a scintillating average of 86.16 with four hundreds and although he was hailed as a great prospect for the future, it never materialized. Aniket Choudhary did well for Rajasthan in the following seasons but in spite of getting a stint as India’s net bowler recently (courtesy of being a left-armer and India preparing for Mitchell Starc), bigger honours never arrived.
The unlucky tale of Pankaj Singh is well known. He took 415 balls to get a Test wicket in 2014 in England but the scorecard and the stats do not show how good he was in those two Tests. Possibly, the selectors did not watch him, merely saw the scorecard and dumped him to the abyss of the Ranji again, for he never played for India again after those two games in England.
“If I watch the videos, I could say that even the Ranji players don’t get beaten as often as the England batsmen did that day. A lot edges whizzed inches past the fielders but didn't go to their hands. I was frustrated, but with time I had matured to know that things like these happen in cricket,” Pankaj Singh had said in an interview with Firstpost last year when he had more than 400 First-class wickets to his name.
He still picks up bucket loads of wickets in the Ranji but performing for Rajasthan isn't the same as doing it for Mumbai, Karnataka or Delhi in India. As such, he remains restricted to the Ranji Trophy.
2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons have thrown up new winners in the Ranji Trophy — Gujarat and Vidarbha. Both of them have been acclaimed and applauded but what happens to the flock of talents from these teams? Do they follow the familiar path of “toil + hardwork = no result” that the Pankaj Singhs and JP Yadavs endured or will they be treated better?
Gujarat, maiden winners in 2016/17, has a cluster of extremely talented players in Priyank Panchal, Rush Kalaria, Jasprit Bumrah, Axar Patel and Hardik Pandya. The latter three gained attention and got recognition in India colours following their performances in the IPL rather than in Ranji Trophy. Panchal and Kalaria haven't set the IPL alight and unsurprisingly aren't talked about much in squad discussions. Of course, Parthiv Patel made a celebrated comeback and it was welcome news for he had churned out the numbers in the Ranji in 2016/17.
In Vidarbha we have a new, “collective effort” winner, but where do the Gurbanis, Fazals, Ramaswamys and Sarwates stand in terms of getting national recognition remains to be seen. The Panchals and Kalarias are still waiting. We hail the unheralded winners but forget about the architects a bit too soon. The question for Indian cricket today is if Ranji Trophy really does serve its purpose if these hard-working youngsters are thrown away from the limelight in spite of giving it their all.
After the finals, Vidarbha's coach, Chandrakant Pandit, had commented, “Everybody likes to win the cup. But this win will not only change the team, but in Vidarbha, every 14-year and 16-year- old boy will probably stand up and raise his hand that he can also win. That kind of culture, I will be happy to achieve in Vidarbha.”
In Pandit's comment, ‘Vidarbha’ could easily be replaced by any underdog side in the Ranji Trophy. It is that kind of impact that a vast nation with a humungous population requires from a tournament like the Ranji Trophy. Imagine if all the cricket-dreaming street heroes and 14 year-olds from small towns take to the game seriously. There will be a huge influx of talent in the country. But this can only manifest if these players are given due recognition at national level. At the moment, that is virtually non-existent. Can victories by Gujarat and Vidarbha create the much needed metamorphosis?