Vidarbha capped a dream run in the Ranji Trophy by defeating Delhi in the final last week. Apart from the fact that this was the maiden triumph of a less fancied team, which had not even reached the quarterfinals of the premier national tournament in the past, the victory also highlighted the changes taking place in the eco-system of the most popular game in the country. The fact that none of the 22 players who took the field in the final currently figures in the national squad may, by itself, underline the growing lack of importance of the championships in the eyes of the players and administrators alike. The conduct of matches in knockout stages at neutral venues, purportedly for the purpose of preparing “sporting pitches”, ensured that spectator interest was also minimum. Thus, a seminal event in the history of growth of the game in the country, would have gone unnoticed, but for the attention paid by some undying romantics of the game and members of the print media.
While observing the course of the match between Vidarbha and Delhi, my mind transported to the first ever Ranji Trophy final that I had followed. Those days cricket season in the country used to start with the Moin-ud-Dowlah Trophy matches, organized by the Hyderabad Cricket Association, in the months of September and October, and end with the Ranji Trophy final, held towards the end of March or early April. In 1973, Tamil Nadu under S Venkataraghavan took on a strong Mumbai (then known as Bombay) side led by Ajit Wadekar at Chennai. Mumbai won the low-scoring match played on a turning track that was prepared to suit the hosts' spinners, but was better exploited by the visitors. The interesting piece of statistic was that this was the fifteenth year in a row that Mumbai had won Ranji Trophy. Not surprisingly players from Mumbai dominated the national squad with as many as six players from this side figuring in the playing eleven that took on England during the Test series in 1972-73.
Karnataka end Mumbai's reign
Mumbai’s monopoly in Ranji Trophy ended next season when Karnataka, led by Erapalli Prasanna, and having in their ranks masters such as Gundappa Viswanath, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Roger Binny and Syed Kirmani, defeated them in the semifinal. Karnataka went on to lift the trophy that year defeating Rajasthan, who had reached the final by inflicting a shock 12-run victory over star-studded Hyderabad, under M L Jaisimha. Thus the 1973-74 cricket season marked the end of the unchallenged reign of Mumbai at the peak of Indian cricket and saw the rise of teams from the southern part of the country.
Karnataka lost the trophy the very next year, but regained it in 1978, defeating Uttar Pradesh in the final. Mumbai, who had won the championship during the intervening years, lost in the league phase that year due to many of their players doing national duty in Australia. The next year saw Delhi, under the redoubtable Bishan Singh Bedi, winning the championship for the very first time, thus paving the way for the rise of teams from North Zone to the top. By this time the composition of the national side had also undergone a change with players from West, South and North Zones finding near equal representation.
As the 1980s dawned the top three teams in the reckoning were Mumbai, Karnataka and Delhi. The Ranji Trophy matches of 1981-82 season would always remain etched in one’s memory on account of some of the happenings on the field of play. Mumbai, led by Gavaskar, took on Karnataka under Viswanath in the semifinals held at Bangalore. Batting first, Mumbai were dismissed for 271, with left-arm spinner Raghuram Bhat taking eight wickets, which included a hat-trick. In reply, Karnataka scored 470, helped by a century by Sudhakar Rao, as Mumbai attack led by Ravi Shastri, also a left-arm spinner, failed to make any impression. An unfortunate incident happened when umpire Rajan Mehra upheld an appeal by Mumbai players for a catch at silly point against Viswanath. Karnataka captain, who was known to be a “walker”, left the wicket with some reluctance and this angered the crowd who felt the umpire had given a wrong decision. Play had to be stopped for some time to restore order and umpires had to be given security cover during the remaining period of the match. When Mumbai batted the second time around, there was a batting collapse as Bhat was among the wickets again, this time scalping five. Gavaskar, who came down the order, created history by batting left-handed. This action of his drew criticism as many felt that he was showing disregard for the game by doing so, while the Mumbai captain maintained that he opted to bat left-handed as he felt that this would help him tackle Bhat’s bowling!
Delhi prevail in batting feast
The final of that season witnessed creation of another record. Karnataka batted first on an easy-paced track at Delhi and reached 405 runs for loss of five wickets when stumps were drawn at close of play on second day. A declaration early in the morning on the third day looked likely so as to give the bowlers a chance to dismiss Delhi for a lower total and win the match on first innings lead. However, just before play started on day three, a newspaper reporter pointed out to Viswanath about a provision in rules of Ranji Trophy final which allowed for extension of play beyond five days to allow both sides to complete their first innings! So he decided to continue batting and finally Karnataka were dismissed for 705. In reply, Delhi struggled at first, but centuries by Mohinder Amarnath and Gursharan Singh, helped them cross the 500-run mark when Karnataka struck back to reduce them to 589 for 8. However, an unbeaten ninth-wicket stand of 118 runs between Rajesh Peter and Rakesh Shukla helped Delhi overhaul the Karnataka total and lift the coveted trophy again.
The period between 1988 and 1993 saw the emergence of new sides as the champions. Tamil Nadu emerged triumphant in 1988, followed by Haryana in 1991 and Punjab in 1993. This signaled a further change in the established hierarchy and pecking order among the various teams. With the increase in the number of contenders for the top slot, matches should have become more exciting and drawn more crowds. But unfortunately the reverse happened as the increasing commitment to international matches by the BCCI left the players forming part of the national squad with little time or opportunities for playing domestic cricket.
It was in this scenario that the BCCI started making changes in the format of the championship so as to allow opportunities for players even from traditionally weaker sides to win recognition at national level. The zonal format was abandoned in 2002-03 season and a two-tier system christened as Elite and Plate groups was started with there being league as well as knockout matches in both tiers. There was also a provision for top two teams of Plate division to move to Elite while the bottom sides of the latter were relegated to the former. In 2008-09, a further change was introduced allowing the top two sides of Plate group to take part in the knockout stage of Elite. Rajasthan made the most of this opportunity and won the title that season.
Division into Elite and Plate groups was discarded in 2012-13 season when format was changed to have three pools, with the third pool comprising teams that featured in the erstwhile Plate section. The provision of upward movement from third pool for top two teams continued as did the bottom sides of first two pools being relegated to the third. However, in 2017-18, this structure was also abandoned and a new system comprising four groups, all on equal footing, each consisting of seven teams, was started. Vidarbha have made history in the very first year of this format.
What does this triumph signify for Vidarbha and for Indian cricket? While it is indeed heartening that a less fancied side could win the trophy, this also points towards the inadequacies of the system wherein national players do not take part actively in the premier tournament of the country. It would not come as a surprise to many that Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and M S Dhoni have all scored more runs at international level than in domestic matches. However, when it comes to the earlier generation of cricketers, one would find that Gavaskar and Viswanath scored more runs in domestic cricket than in international matches. This only proves that these days the focus of cricket administrators is so much on international cricket to the exclusion of domestic matches. Absence of players in national side certainly takes the sheen off the championship and also leads to diminishing spectator interest.
The BCCI has been planning the annual cricket calendar in a manner to ensure participation of members of the national squad in the Indian Premier League since its inception in 2008. This privilege has not been extended to Ranji Trophy, thus further diminishing its importance in the minds of players and spectators alike. In such a situation there would be an obvious tendency to belittle the achievement of the champion side without appreciating the toil put in by players for years to come up from a virtual cricketing backwater to lay their hands on the coveted trophy. Players such as Rajneesh Gurbani, the fast bowler who took a hat-trick in the final, wicketkeeper Akshay Wadkar, who hit a century at a critical juncture in the title clash, and skipper Faiz Fazal, who has been consistent with the bat throughout the season, have shown that they possess the skill and temperament to take on bigger challenges. One hopes that these players as well as other deserving cricketers get due acknowledgment of their abilities as well as avenues for showcasing their potential at the earliest.
The last two decades have seen the spread of popularity of cricket to even the remotest parts of the country. Gone are the days when the game was confined to the erstwhile British presidencies and their successor metros; these days players from all parts of the country are picking up the sport passionately in the hope that they can follow in the footsteps of Dhoni and Mohamad Shami and make their way to the national squad. In a similar manner, the monopoly that a few sides had over the premier cricket championship in the country in the past has vanished. Vidarbha’s win has demonstrated that, in this level playing field, any of the teams that take part in the tournament can aspire to lift the trophy, irrespective of the names in their ranks.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)