With Tendulkar comes attention for Ranji
There was plenty of anticipation at the Wankhede Stadium on the eve of Mumbai's Ranji Trophy opener against Railways. As early as 8.15am, a small crowd had gathered outside the main entrance to the ground, hoping for a glimpse of their favourite star, the hometown boy, playing for his domestic side after three years. A vehicle passed through the Polly Umrigar Gate, with a short, stout, fair, chubby man wearing a hat seated on the back, bearing, at least from a distance, a slight resemblance to the most famous face of Indian sport. Unfortunately for the small gathering, who had already given up hope seeing that the vehicle was a Fiat taxi, it was Railways coach Abhay Sharma who paid the fare, stepped out and made his way into the ground.
Sachin Tendulkar did come, but didn't bat or practise at the nets. He was being treated for a stomach bug, but was fully expected to take the field on the opening day of the Ranji Trophy. He didn't miss too much on the eve of the game: the warm-up on the day was relatively light, the drills not rigorous and Tendulkar's own preparation had happened in the days before.
Ahead of a major series against England, India's Test stars are returning to their respective domestic sides. If those expectant eyes outside the entrance are anything to go by, the Ranji Trophy has been provided that early fillip it needs in its new avatar.
Tendulkar's three dismissals in almost identical fashion - all bowled - during the home Tests against New Zealand have ignited concerns over technique and the impact his age is having on his batting. But back playing for Mumbai, and gearing up for the England Tests, his training for the road ahead shows a determination to bounce back. "He comes around 8am here, does his own fitness training and then joins the team," Mumbai coach Sulakshan Kulkarni said. "The way he is playing in the nets, he is very serious. He was batting everyday in the nets, 45 minutes to an hour, non-stop. His feet movement was going very well and I don't remember any other player, maybe Rahul Dravid, go without a single ball break.
"It is an achievement, to play five bowlers at a stretch for one hour - in 20 minutes you get 100 balls. That means around 300 balls in an hour, so you have to concentrate hard in the nets."
There were those who had a chance to share the field with Tendulkar for the first time and bowl at him in the nets while not being part of the immediate squad: guest bowlers, net bowlers, some of whom are not even part of the Mumbai probables or the Under-19 side. One of them, a left-arm spinner, has been getting special attention, and advice, from Tendulkar.
However, his team-mates, some of whom have shared the dressing room with him during the IPL if not in first-class cricket, have learned to resist being overawed by his presence. "I remember, around 20 years back, Dilip Vengsarkar and Sunil Gavaskar said to youngsters in the dressing room: don't expect sympathy, don't give sympathy," Kulkarni added.
Zaheer Khan will also play for Mumbai - who are looking at an attack of three seamers and two specialist spinners - but did not turn up on the eve of the game. It's not something unusual for Zaheer, who's known to go easy on the final day of preparation.
The return of two senior Test players went beyond boosting the profile of the tournament and giving youngsters an opportunity to rub shoulders with the best. "Not only will they try to get back into their rhythm for the sterner Tests ahead, but it also gives them insight into what is happening at the ground level," said Sanjay Bangar, the Railways captain. "They can also probably evaluate whether the standards of the Ranji Trophy have gone up or down. This is also a chance for them to look at the talent available.
"If they play a couple of more games they will get a wider audience, but even we can't really complain because they are playing against us and all our boys are wanting to do well against the genius."
The last time Tendulkar played in the opening game of Mumbai's Ranji Trophy campaign was in 1998-99. Times were different then, schedules less cramped, challenges for the tournament to stay relevant for players not as serious as today. The contest against Railways may well be preparation for the England series, but his own approach to this match reinforces the significance of what first-class cricket means to those who wish for success in the toughest format.
Starting November 2, watch out for the Ranji Trophy Live blog on match days
Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo