Hubli laps up Ranji experience
Most Ranji Trophy matches are low-key events that whizz by in a blur of public indifference. This week, with much of the Karnataka State Cricket Association's energies devoted to preparing for the one of the marquee matches of the year - the resumption of India-Pakistan cricketing ties - on Christmas day in Bangalore, Karnataka's concurrent Ranji game could have been overlooked even more.
Instead, the match in Hubli got the sort of high-profile beginning that few Ranji games do, with the state's chief minister inaugurating the pavilion at the new stadium and hoping the city would one day host international cricket. There was also a lunch-time ceremony during which former Ranji players from the region, including Anand Katti, Somashekar Shiraguppi and Avinash Vaidya, were honoured. The biggest difference from the usual run-of-the-mill first-class game, though, was made by the boisterous crowds as top-flight cricket returned to Hubli after a two-decade absence.
There was plenty of chatter among the 2000 or so in the stands, ranging from good-natured unsolicited advice to the players (bilo bilo [dive, dive] to fielders nearing the rope when chasing the ball), to juvenile shouts (a player's scream of 'Catch,' merrily echoed half a dozen times) and taunts directed at the Haryana batsmen (one wit called out 'batting, batting' as Abhimanyu Khod walked past after bagging a duck). There were also more serious discussions on team selections (why is Stuart Binny captain?) and explanations of some of the novelties of seeing a game at the ground (where the television cameras are mounted). The day began and ended with players surrounded by swarms of kids wanting their autograph (some even asked "Who are you?" before thrusting their pen and book at the cricketer).
For most fans it was their first time in the stadium, and they lapped up the experience. "We used to play here as kids before the stadium was built," said Pralhad Kulkarni, an insurance salesman, who grew up in the neighbourhood. "I just wanted to see how the area has changed with the stadium. It was good to watch a match live, totally different from watching on TV. It's great to see it with so many people around who are also watching and discussing it."
Pavan Kulkarni, a final-year college student, was equally enthusiastic, especially with Karnataka dominating the first two sessions, taking seven wickets. "Watching a match live in Hubli itself is a dream come true, you could say. I haven't seen cricketers like Robin Uthappa and Amit Mishra play before," he says before adding he would definitely return to watch on Sunday as well. "I'm looking forward to watching Karnataka bat, I had left the stadium midway through but came back on seeing the tea-time score, hoping to see Uthappa bat, but Mishra just didn't get out (and Haryana finished the day on a respectable 293 for 7)."
It wasn't only locals who flocked to the stadium, though. A middle-aged English couple who are holidaying in Goa since October decided to spend the weekend in Hubli after hearing about the match. "We've watched plenty of cricket in India before, it's great to see that they are spreading out the game," said the lady (she didn't want her name printed as "it looks bad in the papers, people talking about things they don't know"). "We were looking for something to do over the weekend before Christmas. We're enjoying ourselves so far."
Not everyone was having as good a time. A couple left an hour after arriving at the game. "It is so slow, Twenty20 is much quicker," the husband said. "Also, it is difficult to follow the game as we don't know many of the players and there should be more announcements to inform us. Without that, it reduces our involvement in the game."
Another man in his mid-30s, Shivakumar, a long-time fan who underlined his credentials by saying he has followed every World Cup since 1987, was slightly puzzled by the stadium experience. "Why is there no live commentary? Is there no live commentary at other matches also?"
The ground was rarely more than half-full but the noisy buzz surrounding the game again highlighted the long-acknowledged need to move Ranji matches to smaller centres. A better case is likely to be built on Sunday when a larger turnout is expected.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo