Varsity cricket back in the spotlight
Kaunain Abbas is a right-hand batsman. In a Twenty20 match at Chinnaswamy Stadium on February 24, he smashed eight sixes en route an unbeaten 128 off 65 balls. His cricketing idol may be Rahul Dravid, but his game is more in line with current times. He is 22 and a first-year MBA student.
Abbas' clean hitting didn't go unnoticed - it was live on television unlike the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy in which India's state teams compete; the highlights are also available online. His runs came in the second match of the University Cricket Championship (UCC) - the newest entrant in the Indian cricket calendar. The innings would have caught the attention of talent scouts from IPL teams, if not the state associations. For some players like Abbas, the tournament could be a big step towards realising their dream of playing top-level cricket. It is with this intention - of bringing university cricket to the fore - that the T20 tournament was introduced.
The initiative is backed by the BCCI and India's ministry of human resource development and is an extension of the annual Rohinton Baria Trophy. It promises to be the boost an ailing 77-year-old inter-university tournament, and the once healthy university cricket system, needs.
Unlike the disconnected relationship between the Ranji Trophy and the IPL, Rohinton Baria's fortunes are closely intertwined with that of the UCC. Eight universities - the top two from each zone - compete for the Rohinton Baria Trophy. The same eight teams qualify for the UCC. If the UCC is successful, the interest in next year's Rohinton Baria could get a massive surge. Abbas, you see, is also the captain of the Jain University team that won the Rohinton Baria Trophy this year.
The Rohinton Baria is not the premier tournament it used to be and could do with a marketing push. Things were different a few decades back. The tournament blossomed in the 60s and the 70s and launched many careers. Sunil Gavaskar played in the 1966-67 final for Bombay University, Mohinder Amarnath led Delhi University to the title in 1972-73, Sanjay Manjrekar used it as a springboard to the Mumbai Ranji team after six consecutive hundreds and Dilip Sardesai's 435 runs at an average of 87 pushed him straight into the national reckoning.
They were not the only ones. Vijay Manjrekar, Ajit Wadekar, Kapil Dev, Arun Lal, Sandeep Patil, Mohammad Azharuddin, Dilip Vengsarkar, Manoj Prabhakar, Shivlal Yadav, Roger Binny - all played university cricket. "For us, it was the biggest tournament and the college was the be all and end all of our cricket," says Lal, who played for Delhi University.
Sifting through the archives, many more recognisable names pop up. Harsha Bhogle, Rajdeep Sardesai, Piyush Pandey.
"To be selected in the university team was big. I remember the day our team was being picked, my friend had got up early searching for newspapers to see the list," reminisces Bhogle, who was a chemical engineering student at Osmania University in Hyderabad.
The universities that did well in the tournament were the ones from regions with strong cricketing cultures and established Ranji teams - Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Punjab, Bangalore.
The quality was high, and competition to get into the sides was tough. Delhi, in a 10-year period starting in 1973, won seven titles despite the transient nature of the teams. Lal fondly remembers the 1977-78 final when he played with a fractured leg and scored an unbeaten 165 - 76 of them in an 80-run stand with No. 10 Sunil Valson.
"The management wanted to send me home but I told them if I go back, my mother would never let me come back to play. So we waited for ten days, cut the plaster off. Our manager asked for a fitness test, and I said 'Are you crazy? I will stand in the slips and I will hobble while batting.' And that's what happened. It was one of the best innings I have ever played."
It was serious cricket, a primary route to be selected for state teams. A combined universities squad also used to take on visiting international teams.
A positive side effect of the structure was that the players got a degree too. Back in the days when there were no mass employers and campus placements were not in fashion, the value of a graduate degree was almost as much as a professional degree and university cricket came with this insurance. Sanjay Manjrekar mentions the positive role his college administration played in helping players manage academics along with pursuing their cricket. The lack of jobs also meant that for amateurs in the team, there were no distractions during the cricket season.
But around about the same time the Buggles recorded their debut single Video killed the radio star, India's university cricket scene was being threatened by a new commodity -age-group cricket.
"I tell you what killed it, it was Under-19 cricket," says Bhogle. "The moment U-19 became big, people stopped playing for the university or didn't go to the university."
The BCCI started age-group cricket to expand the game and to ensure that talent met opportunities irrespective of the background. The board-run age-group versions also received further boost with the inception of global tournaments like the U-19 and U-15 World Cups. Players received exposure like never before. Moreover, as the board grew richer and started improving the general standards around the tournaments by including daily allowances, comfortable travel and stay arrangements, it wasn't a surprise that players started choosing such tournaments over university cricket.
Sanjay Manjrekar presents a terse assessment: "We are not missing anything. For me if U-15, U-19, U-22 and club cricket remain vibrant and the quality of cricketers coming through remains good, there is no need for a tournament like the Rohinton Baria as a feeder."
But in a country like India where choosing sport over a stable profession has always been tough, the safety net of education doesn't exist for young cricketers who now skip university to focus on age-group cricket. The harder choices, for some, need to be made earlier in their lives. So although the new structure has provided opportunities, it could possibly also have been a deterrent to some for not taking up the game.
Age-group cricket is not the only reason as Ratnakar Shetty, the BCCI's cricket development general manager, points out. "The popularity of university cricket is further diminished because of the large number of universities that participate (in inter-zonal qualifiers). This tournament is now about quantity more than quality and in most cases it's played on matting wickets," Shetty says.
The question is, with so much cricket, does an additional T20 tournament do any favours to the university cricket system? N Srinivasan, the BCCI president, speaking at the launch of the UCC last month, was positive when he said, "the viewership will make a big difference as it will enable people to see university cricket close at hand."
The matches are being covered live on Star Cricket and have sponsor support from NDTV and Toyota. The 'viewership' is guaranteed for three years at least. But it is hard to predict how a minor tournament with unknown names is going to sustain interest.
"The idea is that you will get to know some names soon and build around it," says Lal. It is now over to Abbas and other boys to bring some attention back to university cricket.
Devashish Fuloria is a sub-editor with ESPNcricinfo