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Is the Ranji Trophy struggling to stay relevant?
As the season kicks off, R Ashwin speaks about the tournament's relevance, and Aakash Chopra and VB Chandrasekhar on the challenges it faces (15:04)
Producers: Akhila Ranganna and Siddhartha Talya
October 31, 2010
Related Links » Players/Officials: Ravichandran Ashwin | V.B.Chandrasekhar | Aakash Chopra Series/Tournaments: Ranji Trophy Plate League | Ranji Trophy Super League | India Domestic Season Teams: India
Is the Ranji Trophy struggling to stay relevant?October 31, 2010
The Ranji Trophy has long been India's premier domestic tournament, one that players aspiring to represent India have regarded as the stage on which to make a mark. The IPL has emerged as a platform young cricketers can use to make the transition to international cricket. Has this diminished the importance of the Ranji Trophy in their eyes?
We witnessed a riveting Ranji finale last season in Mysore, when Mumbai held their nerve against Karnataka in front of a capacity crowd. Have the administrators built on this success? How can the tournament increase its appeal among fans, and as a new season kicks off on the 1st of November, who are the players and teams to watch out for? We spoke to Tamil Nadu and India offspinner R Ashwin and former India openers Aakash Chopra and VB Chandrasekhar for their views
R Ashwin: If you see each and every guy who's played for India, you'll see they've got a huge amount of good first-class seasons. If you're talking about a Ravindra Jadeja, who made it after the first IPL, take a look at his performance in first-class cricket that year. It's just that people carry on to do good work after they've done really well for their first-class sides. Anybody who's playing for India is not playing just because of IPL. Without first-class cricket, which is the premier tournament and format in India, I don't think anybody can step up the ladder.
Aakash Chopra: IPL performances have been given more importance over the performances in the domestic circuit, and when we start doing that, the results are going to show at the grassroots level. We've already seen people promoted to play for India only on the back of IPL performances. On the other hand, you can actually slog for years in the domestic circuit before making it to the top. So when you see that contrast, you're obviously more aligned to perform well in the IPL - that 45-day spectacle - rather than a four-and-a-half-month gruelling Ranji Trophy season.
VB Chandrasekhar: There is a short cut available for the younger lot to day and the IPL throws that kind of opportunity for them. They know pretty well that to catch the eye of the selectors and the media, they need to be playing a well-organised tournament that gets maximum eyeballs over the world, and the IPL serves as a shortcut for them.
When they perform under that kind of pressure, you get a sampling of the talent of the guy. If he has to prove himself through first-class cricket, it might take him years and years to get there. S Badrinath is a prime example: he has made tons of runs but when he gets an opportunity, he is probably past his best. They do not get enough opportunities there. Somebody who is a flash in the pan and comes in and makes it big at the highest level. I don't think an R Ashwin would have caught the eye of the selectors if he hadn't performed in the IPL, and the same goes for Ravindra Jadeja.
Maybe along the way a bit more corporate interest in the Ranji Trophy should be looked at. Organising that will give the competitive edge. You want to bring in a tournament that is as exciting and throws in the right talent and gives the right ambience for youngsters to perform to the same extent the IPL gives. Mumbai wins the Ranji Trophy a number of times and this is one reason why they win it: they say they are doing it for Mumbai, they play as a team. I keep looking at them; they are the most depleted sort of team and they don't carry the same kind of strength they used to earlier, but still they come and win. So there must be something [in the Ranji Trophy] that makes them want to win.
Ashwin has emerged as a key player for Tamil Nadu since his debut in 2006-07. He has turned in impressive performances with his offspin as well as handy contributions down the order with the bat. He also played a crucial role in Chennai Super Kings' success in the IPL and the Champions League, and is now a contender for a place in India's World Cup squad. He has begun this domestic season on a high, with seven wickets and a half-century in the Irani Cup.
RA: My experience in the Ranji Trophy has been pretty good so far. I've gone through great seasons, good seasons and patchy seasons here and there as well. I got 30-31 wickets in the four or five games I played in my first season, and that was a great start to my first-class career. I had won a game for Tamil Nadu on my own as a bowler, getting 11 wickets in a game against Baroda. The following season I started off well, picking up six wickets against Maharashtra. I made two fifties in the first two games, against Mumbai and Maharashtra. It was a good start, I was looking to scale the ladder but after two games I fractured my wrist and had to sit out for the rest of the season. Largely, the experiences were good and I made the cut to play for South Zone.
The following season was a little tougher. So, as a cricketer or a spinner who aspires to the game at the highest level, I would say he needs to go through the grind of first-class cricket in India, just to get an experience of what it is all about, how to go about things and how you get over the tough times, and use the good times and make up for the bad times. It certainly helps you mentally as well.
|"Unfortunately we don't give enough importance to first-class games and we waste too much time in useless competitions. We play so many tournaments that the real tournament, which is the Ranji Trophy, loses its significance" Aakash Chopra|
My performances in the Ranji Trophy have really helped me develop as a cricketer because I've had to work a lot on my basics. To be getting wickets at the first-class level you've got to be a really patient guy. Especially for a spinner - you've got to bowl the long hauls and wait for the wickets to fall because you're bowling on flat decks. So it definitely helped me shape up my bowling skills. The wickets you get in this tournament are a different kettle of fish. You don't really go out as a bowler and say you're going to be guaranteed wickets. That is one thing first-class cricket will teach you in India. You will have a great day and bowl really well but not have returns or figures that you really long for. You'll know that the hard days are part and parcel of cricket, and that way first-class cricket has really made me tough.
But is this enthusiasm for first-class domestic cricket shared by Indian fans? Ranji Trophy games are often played out in empty stadiums, with most of the cheering emanating from the dressing room. The electric atmosphere at last year's final in Mysore, a smaller cricketing centre, was an aberration. The administrators and state associations have been criticised for not doing enough to reach out to the public.
VBC: I think it is such a long-drawn out tournament because you know the top three to four teams. What excites fans is that they want to see some stars. If you want to put something back in the domestic tournament, you have to get some of the stars. But with the kind of schedule with which the international programme is run, it is impossible to get any of them to come in and play. Take it to smaller centres but you must make sure the stars come. I don't think there has been any great planning there. It is time some changes come about.
AC: I really haven't seen associations making an effort to make it popular, though I think there is a huge scope. You can always have a tie-up with a local radio station and when entry is free, when you are promised good cricket, and more importantly, when people who are representing India are in action - if you can make it into a spectacle, make it a good day out for the family, I think people will come and watch. It's only a matter of creating awareness, but not many associations have actually gone ahead and done that. They are still pretty happy to play to empty stadiums. They all get a lot of subsidies from the board, so why not spend just a few lakhs just popularising the game?
A part of the problem could lie in the tournament's format and its scheduling. Due to a lack of outright results, teams often win points based on first-innings leads. Last year Rahul Dravid called for greater space between Ranji Trophy games, possibly by scrapping a couple of other domestic competitions, in order for players to be able to give their best and go for outright wins. He also backed the concept of neutral curators to make games more competitive. Currently the tournament is played over two leagues. Does that need a rethink?
AC: There has to be a change, not only Elite and Plate, but a proper change wherein we have three tiers of nine teams each who play each other twice. What is happening right now is that we're not getting enough first-class games. Despite having 27 teams, most of them finish their season in six weeks straight and that means only five first-class games. Unfortunately we don't give enough importance to first-class games and we waste too much time in useless competitions. We play so many tournaments that the real tournament, which is the Ranji Trophy, loses its significance.
VBC: More teams means you are diluting the extent to which the tournament will have an impact. If you look at the Sheffield Shield [in Australia], they have very few teams competing. This means they have all their strength drawn into these five or six teams. We have a number of state associations staking a claim, wanting to play in the Ranji Trophy. But I don't think the Elite and Plate group has really caught on in the way it should have. Most of the matches are finishing with first-innings lead. Sometimes a team gets really desperate and you have wickets which have little more for the bowlers and the score is low and you have a result.
Is a four-day game enough to get a result is the question. It is time the Ranji Trophy, particularly the league phase, moves on from four-day to five-day. You are looking at more results and the possibility of more teams competing. My point is not to knock off few of the state associations. It is to bring more quality and also make sure the competitiveness gets the player to round up his game in such a fashion that when he comes into the international game he is more complete.
Last year's nailbiting win gave Mumbai their 39th Ranji title, a sign of their dominance on India's domestic circuit. But they suffered a massive defeat at the hands of Rest of India in the Irani Cup this year. Which are the teams likely to challenge them this season?
VBC: It is all the same all through these last five-six years; it has been Mumbai that has been upfront. They have always been in the last four, winning the trophy more times than any other team. Delhi can be another team only if they can put their differences aside, or if they have their star players available for most part of the season. Tamil Nadu has come on really well in the last couple of years, and there is always a chance for them to try and attempt to win the trophy but they end up failing in the last few stages.
Besides this, we have had a few surprises like Saurashtra getting in at one point of time. But overall there are more depleted teams and few strong teams, so you can nail down the last four and say Delhi, Mumbai, Tamil Nadu and one of the others
AC: I think it is the traditional teams like Mumbai, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu - they've been doing really well. I would expect Delhi to finish in the top four or five. Uttar Pradesh is one side that cannot be taken lightly. So these are the five units I'd be keeping a close eye on.
Besides these teams, I think Saurashtra can surprise a few because they have been doing consistently well. Baroda had lagged behind but you then have the Pathan brothers playing for them, vying for a spot in the Indian team. So these two guys can really turn it around, and now they've got Ambati Rayudu too. So I'm expecting these teams to actually hog the limelight and deliver.
The performance of Cheteshwar Pujara in the second Test against Australia in Bangalore, where he played a critical role in India's successful chase, will have heartened many fans of first-class cricket in India. It was his prolific run-making for Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy and performances for India A that won Pujara a place in the Test squad, one he proved was deserved. Who are the players to watch out for this season?
VBC: If you are looking for talent out of this contest, it will be numbers that the players churn out. The quality of those numbers is always questionable. If in a season you had somebody perform for six seven months in a row you can say there is this guy with potential and consistency to put things together.
Players to watch: I really don't know. I am really looking forward to someone coming and catching my eye. One such player was Ishant Sharma. The moment I looked at him, I knew he would play for India.
AC: I would be looking forward to seeing how Harmeet Singh, the young left-arm spinner from Mumbai, does in this season, and someone like Vikas Mishra from Delhi. He's someone who did well in his first season, and these guys are both youngsters. There is an obvious paucity of good spinners in India so I'd look forward to see how these two youngsters develop and perform in their second Ranji season.
Even someone like Jaidev Unadkat - I've not seen him play first-class cricket. He was fast-tracked into the Indian Test team and now is the time to see how he does in the Ranji season because that can be gruelling. He plays for Saurashtra who generally play on a road-like surface in Rajkot, so it remains to be seen how he handles the pressure. Also, the pressure of being an India cricketer in a small outfit along with dealing with the seasoned campaigners who score plenty of runs, who will actually run down the opposition - players like Wasim Jaffer or Ajinkya Rahane or senior pros like Mithun Manhas or Shikhar Dhawan. They grind the opposition down and that would be a real test for Unadkat.
The Ranji Trophy's reputation as India's premier domestic tournament is likely to remain intact if players, like Ashwin, regard the first-class experience as essential to their development. But it faces challenges ranging from concerns over its format and ability to draw crowds to competition from other avenues available for cricketers to prove their preparedness for international cricket. With Siddhartha Talya, this is Akhila Ranganna for ESPNcricinfo.
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