Much promise, and a few old problems for the Ranji Trophy
Bryce McGain went for 0 for 149 in 18 overs in his only Test, in 2008-09. He is mostly a forgotten legspinner now. He thinks he will never play a Test again. It still doesn't take away from his enjoyment of playing the game. In an interview with ESPNcricinfo in 2010, he said if his mind were dictated by figures, he would have gone crazy 10 years ago. He said that being with his mates at 8am, for any level of cricket, on freshly cut wet grass, trying to turn the ball as hard as he can, he is happy to just be there. Perhaps only a legspinner, the most optimistic breed among cricketers, could have put it so beautifully.
Around a neglected tournament, in another country, you can almost smell the freshly cut wet grass. England are here for a big Test series and their first cricketing visit to the Brabourne Stadium had them all walk past the Ranji Trophy that sits regally in a CCI foyer. In less than 24 hours from now, 12 matches will start simultaneously, and about 400 cricketers will be happy to just be there. This is the real start of India's domestic season, the only tournament that really matters to the players and to a majority of the small number that follow Indian domestic cricket.
Another legspinner - Anil Kumble, now the head of BCCI's technical committee, is remembered slightly more than McGain, though - has taken it upon himself to keep the Ranji Trophy relevant and fresh, which is a huge challenge, given the length and breadth of the country, and the number of rather needless tournaments that eat into the calendar.
The start, though, seems to have been made. There is a palpable buzz around. Some, but not all of it, is down to no foreign tours for India this season. Almost all of India's Test team is playing the season opener. And for the rung just below that, there is promise, a hope that performances in Ranji Trophy could bring immediate and tangible results. For the last few years, with the Test team touring abroad, once the squad was selected, that was it. After that whatever you did in the Ranji Trophy, you were almost invisible. Now if Suresh Raina fails in Ahmedabad and if Ajinkya Rahane scores a big hundred in Hyderabad, there could be a change in the middle of the series.
Yet the beauty of the Ranji Trophy is not this alone. It is democratic, it allows a Plate team like Rajasthan to win the real thing. It allows players who have no realistic hope of playing Test cricket proper time and space to take their team ahead. The change in format, from Elite and Plate to three groups of nine each, has made it even more democratic now.
The class system is gone, which will give the neglected teams more involvement. The new format, where two teams from Group C will make it straight to the quarter-finals, saves the best team from the Plate league what could be a heartbreaking knockout game that used to be played over just four days and has at times been decided on the basis of the faster scoring rate. Nor did those Plate semi-finals lead to finals.
"All teams have got equal opportunities," says Amol Muzumdar who has been part of the have-nots of late after a long career with the haves, Mumbai. "Eight games. Four home games and four away games. In Plate League there used to be five games. That wasn't enough opportunities for a team."
Over five games and a crunched schedule, if you went down with flu, you had missed almost half the Ranji Trophy. And like players from injuries and illnesses, teams will get a better chance of coming back from poor starts. Three out of nine, not seven or eight, in the two top groups will make it to the quarter-finals, making it a sterner test. The near-obsessive need for at least a first-innings result - five days for every knockout game and an extra day if needed - will ensure no home team prepares snooze fests of pitches to exploit the run-rate rule.
The Ranji Trophy evolves every year, this year it will evolve a little more than usual. Kumble and friends will be watching closely. Teams are playing ball too, taking steps towards professionalism. Uttar Pradesh, known for their rustic ways, have hired an outsider, Venkatesh Prasad, as coach. They even paid an external agency to organise a 15-day pre-season camp, in an attempt to build a sense of team and work on mental strength. Himachal Pradesh and Haryana sought paid help from the National Cricket Academy. Andhra have hired a New Zealander to coach them.
Still, big challenges remain. India just can't seem to find enough time for the Ranji Trophy. The matches are still lugged together with a three-day gap in between, suggesting not a prestigious first-class tournament but a chore that has to be got out of the way.
And what of the players? This year, the champion team will have played 47 days of cricket (considering no knockout game goes into a sixth day) in a little under three months. Last year, Rajasthan played 10 matches over 80 days. It is just killing for everybody in general and the fast bowlers in particular, whose bodies are allowed no time to recuperate. "Bowlers who start the season bowling at 135kmph become trundlers by the end of it," says Aakash Chopra. Forget about working on your game during the season. There's no time. You want to change your grip a little? How about trying next season?
Add to it other tournaments. Teams might arrange camps before the Ranji Trophy, but they regularly miss all their good Under-25 cricketers, who are away playing U-25 tournaments. This year they have been hit worse with the A game against the touring English finishing only hours before the first toss in the Ranji Trophy. Vinay Kumar and Ashok Dinda could be bowling 15 overs each on November 1, and hoping like hell Karnataka and Bengal don't end up bowling first on November 2.
The Ranji Trophy, unlike the Duleep, Irani, Challenger and Deodhar, fosters team pride, where you are always striving to take your team to the next level; in other tournaments you hardly feel you are a team. In the Duleep Trophy, for example, players meet each other for the first time only in the nets. Some of them wear their state gear, some go for their club clothes, and some are seen in Nike India shirts after having represented India or India A. More than a month can easily be freed up by getting rid of those tournaments. The choice is between having 20 uncared-for trophies and two or three really well-planned ones.
Most of the players who are happy to just be there will be happier if they had a sizable number who are happy to just be following their fortunes. And those people just need to be told the Ranji Trophy is something worth caring for. Otherwise the freshly cut wet grass can dry up in no time.
Starting November 2, watch out for the Ranji Trophy Live blog on match days
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo