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"It's probably the water," said a visiting speaker, tongue-in-cheek and politically incorrect. "Maybe Tamil Nadu will start winning the Ranji Trophy once it receives enough Kaveri water." This was in response to a question about why the state was unable to translate talent into performance despite handsome support from corporates and the cricket administration. This was in 2002, at the launch of my book on Tamil Nadu cricket, and nothing much has changed since then.
Tamil Nadu last won the national championship in 1987-88, and that was only their second title since the tournament began in 1934. Of talent there seems no shortage in the state, and sportspersons below the international level do not have it better anywhere, at least in the subcontinent. In Chennai, a cricketer good enough to compete in the first division of the TNCA league is assured of livelihood security of a high order, excellent training and practice facilities, qualified coaches and physical trainers devoted to individual teams, and a systematic process of talent identification and promotion.
Coaches have come and gone, captains and team members have been handpicked and nurtured at the state level, the senior league matches are played over three days, there is no lack of the shorter-format games, and Chennai Super Kings has bred a new avatar of cricketer, one who is confident, innovative and introduced to winning ways by a dynamic captain. Yet the Ranji Trophy remains as elusive as ever.
Many reasons have been cited. They range from complacency, the result of being pampered, to the lack of the killer instinct endemic to a laidback lifestyle that does not require a young player to commute for miles in a packed train (as is famously the case in Mumbai) to get to daily net practice. One theory suggests that the trouble lies with the lack of consistency in selection, the excessive chopping and changing of personnel on the field and off it.
"I have watched Tamil Nadu in Ranji cricket for over 15 years, and it never plays the same XI for two consecutive matches," claims a supporter who has given up hope. Some critics accuse Tamil Nadu cricketers of arrogance, of being strangers to the team ethic of successful sides.
The other two leading sides in the south, Karnataka and Hyderabad, haven't fared much better in the last decade. Hyderabad have been national champions only twice, the first time, incredibly, after just one win in the season, and the next with a resounding, well-deserved triumph in 1986-87. Karnataka, the most competitive of the three, who did so well in the Prasanna-Chandrasekhar-Viswanath era, won their third title in 1982-83 and three more in the 1990s, with some extraordinary performances from Rahul Dravid and Vijay Bharadwaj in two finals. Their last victory, in 1998-99, was achieved in the absence of their Test stars, but Karnataka's subsequent form has generally been less than inspiring.
Paradoxically, with both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the drought may be the result of a surfeit of talent. If we stop to seek an out-of-the box solution to the problem, we might realise that both states have a strong cricket presence in their capital cities - though Bangalore cricket is less organised than Chennai cricket - and also a reasonable spread of players in their district centres. Selection of the state team in a scenario that offers a basket of urban and semi-urban talent could be fraught with the risk of leaning unevenly one way or the other.
Why then can we not have two teams in each of these states - Chennai and Tamil Nadu, and Bangalore and Karnataka? This way, more cricketers will have a chance to take part in the Ranji Trophy, while the selectors will breathe easier at not having to sacrifice deserving players to acute competition for places. There are so many such bifurcations - even trifurcations - in force in the national championship that it is a wonder that these two highly endowed states have not enjoyed such largesse from the apex body.
Maharashtra has three teams - Mumbai, Maharashtra and Vidarbha - and Gujarat has a similar number in Gujarat, Baroda and Saurashtra. Even Andhra Pradesh fields two - Andhra and Hyderabad - while in the north and north east, there is a new team every time a new state is born. This is to say nothing of the number of players from the capital region who turn out for neighbouring teams.
Most of the district players already playing in the Chennai or Bangalore leagues are forced by lack of opportunity to ply their trade outside their states. When despite all its faults the IPL has thrown up a serious crop of hitherto unknown youngsters capable of holding their own against proven international players, I see no reason why a similar efflorescence cannot result from the expansion of opportunities I recommend. Chennai and Bengaluru will probably outperform Tamil Nadu and Karnataka - but not for long. The mofussil lads will catch up soon enough.
V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970sFeeds: V Ramnarayan
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A Chennai-born offspinner who represented Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s, V Ramnarayan is an intermittent columnist / blogger on cricket and other subjects. He is a translator and author, with books on cricket and the arts to his credit, a teacher of language and style at a premier journalism school, and editor-in-chief of Sruti, a leading Indian monthly on the performing arts. His works include histories of Tamil Nadu cricket and the Madras Cricket Club, and biographies.