The ritual starts every year around the beginning of October. I look up the Ranji Trophy fixtures on ESPNcricinfo, extract the 'Tamil Nadu' matches and mail them to a friend, highlighting the matches that are scheduled to happen in Chennai. Sometimes, he does the same before I do. Either way, for the last few years, we have managed to get together to watch a day, or at the least, a couple of sessions, of Ranji Trophy cricket at the ground every season.
The crowd, if it can be called that, at a Ranji match is a diverse one. There are fathers bringing their young sons for their first taste of live-cricket viewing, old-timers who have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the history and evolution of Tamil Nadu cricket, people who come solely to look at the 'India stars' from close quarters (and almost unfailingly call out their names with encouraging remarks as they walk back into the pavilion), casual visitors who drop in for just a couple of hours, folks who would rather be anywhere but at their school/college/office and a few souls who simply would be anywhere.
The cricket is often unhurried, almost never frenetic and occasionally testing the boundaries of tolerance, like the 2011-12 Tamil Nadu-Rajasthan final did. The atmosphere in the stands is generally relaxed and, as is usually the case, reflects the pace and state of the game that is in progress. For a well-played shot, the sweet sound of the ball hitting the bat is clearly audible, and is followed by a smattering of applause that is pleasant to the ears. More often than not, there is genuine appreciation and admiration for good cricket in general and not just frenzied support for the home team.
Matches that are not played at the MA Chidambaram stadium, which is Chennai's premier venue, are usually held at one of two venues - the well-maintained Guru Nanak College Ground or the very picturesque IIT Chemplast Ground. I always find these smaller venues to be more appealing from a spectator's perspective. They are less imposing as there are no stands and you are much closer to the action - in fact, the boundary rope that separates you from the players is more of a mental restraint than a physical one. There are grassy areas beyond the boundary rope where you can seat yourself or stretch out comfortably, have leisurely talks with your companions and keep an eye on the action that unfolds on the field. Only when you get too close to the sightscreen are you politely, almost apologetically, requested by an attendant to move aside.
My patronage of Ranji cricket provides me with both joy and disappointment. Disappointment that our country's premier first-class tournament generates so little interest and small a following, which do not do justice to its rich history and role in producing players for the national team. The India and Chennai (IPL) teams are immensely popular but when it comes to Tamil Nadu, there is a huge void in spectator interest and support. Still, there is joy in the fact that a Ranji match is so unlike an India or IPL match - this is cricket with no frills and no jingoism, cricket that is pure and largely unadulterated by commercial compulsions, cricket at its simplest, where it is treated essentially as a game and not as a spectacle to behold.
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