Remember a day
It has been a week since the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup kicked off in Hyderabad, but chances are you haven't heard anything about it. For what was without doubt the premier domestic cricket event in India, the Moin-ud-Dowla, an invitational, club-based tournament, has seen a drastic dip in fame and fortune.
Seen at one point as a launch pad for young cricketers to try and get into their state sides, this year's edition saw the dynamic reversed: three big names - Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, and Wasim Jaffer - participated to keep their names in the selectors' thoughts, eventually, it would seem, to little effect. So why the lack of interest in the oldest tournament in India, one steeped in history and graced with the presence of some of India's finest cricketers?
Before addressing the issue, it is necessary to understand the attraction of the tournament that was. For Hyderabadis, the Moin-ud-Dowla carried an allure that was unmatched by any other in the country. "There used to be large crowds watching because there was not a lot of international cricket, and no television at all, and the Hyderabadis would flock to the Fateh Maidan (later the Lal Bahadur Stadium) to see the stars in action," recalled Man Singh, a long-standing administrator in Hyderabad and most remembered for managing the World Cup winning side in 1983.
Harsha Bhogle, a prominent broadcaster with ESPN Star Sports who grew up in Hyderabad, fondly looked back at "a big part of his growing up" in which he and his friends queued up to purchase tickets to watch their heroes from the State Bank of India - "packed with stars" - take on the Associated Cement Companies - "with Gavaskar and other big Bombay players" - while Shivlal Yadav, the former India offspinner and prominent Hyderabad cricket administrator talked of the "distinction" of playing with big names in front of a "loving home crowd".
|Even the presence of Ganguly, Laxman and Jaffer do not draw enough crowds, a sad statement for a tournament that used to bring in fans and heroes with ease|
The decline was triggered by the second World War. Prior to that, the Moin-ud-Dowla, which started as early as 1911, was very popular because no other tournament in the country would get the best cricketers, not only from India but from abroad. The Bombay Pentangular was probably the tournament with a larger fan base - the fact that it was played on communal lines made the crowds a bit more partisan - but even that couldn't match the quality of cricket that was served up for the Hyderabadis. The Maharaja of Vizianagram used to field a team, and he invited legends like Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe and Learie Constantine.
In addition, the advent of the Ranji Trophy in 1934 - with players representing their respective states - proved to be a roadblock. It became increasingly difficult to assemble all-star teams and the tournament lost some of its glamour over the next two decades. It took the persuasive powers of Ghulam Ahmed, the former Indian offspinner and secretary of the Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA), to instigate a revival in 1962. He took up the matter with the Indian board and reinstated the all-India format.
However, it did not help that in 1971, the Indian board discontinued giving the tournament first-class status. Bhogle suggested that the decline was also based on the tilt of a larger axis: Indian domestic cricket. "It was the amount of cricket being played, and the subsequent decline of all forms of domestic cricket. There was a time when everybody used to play Ranji Trophy. As that changed, all domestic cricket suffered. This denied a lot of local people the chance to see stars. There used to be 10,000 people coming to watch, now some 200 show up." Clearly, too many teams, and a lack of good competition, was not what the Hyderabad crowd wanted to see.
In 1992, with one-day cricket reaching new levels of popularity, the HCA changed the Moin-ud-Dowla into to a one-day tournament, with more teams participating. This, in Man Singh's view, "diluted" the essence of what the tournament stood for. "With more and more teams, it became a little unwieldy," he said. "One-day cricket has its attraction, but the Moin-ud-Dowla has its own history. And to maintain that is something special. With 20 teams participating, the tournament gets diluted. And with all due respect to the teams involved, sides like Tripura and Assam don't really create that competitive edge that is needed. There are four teams from Madras, which is not necessary. One would have been much stronger."
Still Man Singh, who was instrumental in getting the Moin-ud-Dowla back into three-day mode, felt that the tournament could still be of use to the country's stars. "We should take the India Under-19 and India A players and make them play this tournament. With the competition and exposure, everyone will benefit."
Giving the example of a Colts side, before his time, that featured ten youngsters and an Indian Test captain, Bhogle suggested the idea would be novel in today's era. "It was an excellent concept that has a place in today's life," he said. "I'd love to see a tournament with Rahul Dravid and ten India A players who have not played for India, all in one side. Can you imagine what would happen if Dravid led a team that included Yo Mahesh, Rohit Sharma and Shahbaz Nadeem?"
It is a telling observation that there is no side in the current competition like that of the old SBI side, which featured names like Ajit Wadekar, Hanumant Singh, Abid Ali, Gundappa Vishwanath, Syed Kirmani, Gopal Bose, Bishan Singh Bedi, and Rajinder Goel. This can be linked to the decline of the 'corporate tournament' concept in India, the reasons being that one, big companies do not employ many big names, and second, that that big names have lost interest in turning out due to the lack of monetary gain. They can earn much more in endorsements. That there is just one such contest, the Buchi Babu, indicates the uncertain terrain that exists for companies to make their mileage and attract attention towards top cricketers.
In retrospect, it was hard for a club-based, invitational leisure tournament to prosper in the face of structured and sadly, even politicised, first-class cricket's success. While Yadav maintained that this year's edition threw up some good teams with promising youngsters, the Moin-ud-Dowla's presence on the domestic circuit has faded. Even the presence of Ganguly (Cricket Board of Bengal), Laxman (HCA) and Jaffer (Mumbai Cricket Assocation XI) does not draw enough crowds, a sad statement for a tournament that used to bring in fans and heroes with ease.
Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo