The return of the Ranji Trophy is good news all around

The resumption of the Ranji Trophy after a year’s break can only be good news. And not just for the financial health of our first-class cricketers, especially those who do not have IPL contracts. If cricket is a viable career for an Indian sportsman, it is important that he play the Ranji Trophy.

But there is more to it than that. It means that there are players ready, fit and able to graduate to the national team. It means that those on the fringes of selection get another chance to impress the selectors.

Earlier this year, when things were uncertain, fast bowler Jaydev Unadkat tweetedDear red ball, please give me one more chance. I’ll make you proud, promise!”Unadkat has played one Test and seven one-dayers. He had just turned 30, having led Saurashtra to their maiden Ranji title the last time the tournament was held. The pathos in the tweet was heightened by the fact he had claimed 67 wickets, the most that season, at 13.23.

He didn’t make it to the Indian team, though. He said in a recent interview, “Now I approach my journey season by season, thinking that if I put my heart into the domestic season, I will get my chance sooner or later.”

Impact of losing a season

Time moves faster for a sportsman as he ages, and loss of a season (for a while there it looked like two seasons) can be devastating. The number of active years, and years at the top are both limited. You’ve got to make the most of what’s available.

By splitting the Ranji into two, with the league commencing this month and the knockout after the IPL, the cricket board might be telling us both that the national championship is important and that the IPL is crucial too.

Difficult times call for difficult choices, and at any rate the players are unlikely to complain. The worst curse for a sportsman is the lack of opportunity.

With 38 teams in the fray, the national championship will breathe fresh life into more than a thousand players, umpires, curators, scorers and many more involved in the game. The Covid pandemic forced the cricket board’s hands last season when the tournament had to be called off; some of the smiles have returned to the faces of cricketers at either end of their careers, and especially for those in the middle who are at their peak. If they have a message for the national selectors, they have to deliver it now.

The Ranji Trophy is the nursery for international cricketers. Rahul Dravid once wrote about playing it for five years before being called up for India. But it isn’t just the players. For five years I reported the tournament, traveling across the country, getting to know the players, familiarizing myself with the officials and their special talents, and listening to the stories of the old-timers before I was finally allowed to report a Test match. It was a solid grounding, and one I would not exchange for anything.

Learning experience

There was a romance in the championship. One traveled with the players by train, and sat wide-eyed alongside the youngsters as seniors like Gundappa Viswanath spoke of their international experiences and their own early years in the game. You learned more from an overnight train journey with Erapalli Prasanna or ML Jaisimha (they had become managers and coaches by then) than you did reading any amount of books on the game.

Watch this boy

You met players while they were callow youngsters, nervous and full of self-doubt; seniors told you to “watch this boy”, as Venkatraghavan once did about Mohammed Azharuddin. Careers began, flourished and ended in front of your laptops leaving behind only memories. Many were forgotten except by those who were there to tell their stories.

Sometimes matches were played in small towns; this was their biggest event in the calendar. When it was difficult to manage the number of requests for autographs, the manager brought in a bunch of autograph books and some of us youngsters signed as the players. Both the players and the fans were happy.

“The signature I use for my bank is a bit different from the one I use on autograph books,” Brijesh Patel said, giving us a lesson in privacy and security before the terms had come into common usage.

International stars were happy to turn out for the Ranji Trophy, unlike now when most make excuses to stay away. Perhaps with good reason, since they play so much round the year anyway, but something goes missing when that happens. Circumstances meant that India’s most successful batsman (Sachin Tendulkar) never played against India’s most successful bowler (Anil Kumble) in the national championship, a pity.

Who wouldn’t like to see Jasprit Bumrah bowl to Virat Kohli, or Rishabh Pant take on Ravichandran Ashwin?

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