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From centre stage to the sidelines

Amol Karhadkar
Pune is Maharashtra's cricket's HQ, though that means less today than it did until a decade ago

Pune - Poona to the British - has had numerous tags over the years: a city of intellectuals, of freedom fighters, pensioners' paradise, the two-wheeler capital of the country, a college town, an information and technology hub. The second-most important city in Maharashtra has changed plenty over the years.

In the mid-'90s, however, somewhere between its transformation from educational to IT hub, Pune also got serious about sport. Not that Punekars had ignored sports before the National Games came to town in 1994, but the construction of the Shiv Chhatrapati Sports City on the outskirts of the city for the event marked the arrival of a new phase.

Back then the sports complex at Balewadi on the Mumbai-Bangalore national highway - about 12km from Deccan Gymkhana - was considered too far from the city centre by many. So much has changed during the last two decades. The sprawling new cricket stadium was built last year more than 15km down the highway to Mumbai, at Gahunje, and most students and professionals now don't mind travelling up to 50km to watch a game of IPL there.

The paradigm shift in the culture of the city reflects in its cricket culture as well. Most cricket fans associate Pune variously with the new stadium, the controversy surrounding Abhijeet Kale allegedly offering a bribe to a national selector, local boy Hrishikesh Kanitkar's match-winning boundary in Dhaka in 1998, and with Kenya shocking West Indies in a 1996 World Cup game at the city's Nehru Stadium.

Cricket connoisseurs will remember that Pune hosted the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1932-33, and Pentangular games over the next decade or so. Also, how Prof DB Deodhar broke away from the Bombay province, co-founded the Maharashtra Cricket Association and led them to back-to-back Ranji titles; the rise of Chandu Borde as city's most prominent cricketer; and sadly, how the city's cricketers haven't gotten their due when it comes to representing the country.

Pune was an important cricket centre in the pre-independence era, till the 1960s, but the city's cricket was limited to three or four major gymkhanas. The Deccan Gymkhana and the PYC Hindu Gymkhana - situated opposite each other - catered to the cricket-loving public in the main city, and the Poona Club (formerly the European Club) and Parsee Gymkhana were where cricketers from the cantonment area played.

Apart from these four clubs, the maidans across the city - primarily college fields - emerged as breeding grounds for cricketers. "As an amateur cricketer, I used to regularly play at the Engineering College ground during my youth," recalls Ajay Shirke, the Maharashtra Cricket Association president. "And the ground used to be flooded with players like me all seven days of the week."

"If the club teams were so superior, why haven't they been able to win even one title over the last seven or eight years?"
Ajay Shirke, Maharashtra Cricket Association president

From the late-'60s, fans flocked to the college grounds to watch top-notch cricket. "The college cricket scenario was so strong and competitive since my childhood that an impressive performance in the inter-college final would more or less lead to the player breaking into Maharashtra's Ranji squad," says Surendra Bhave, a former Maharashtra captain and current coach.

A strong college circuit naturally fed players into the 50-odd clubs registered with the MCA. These were split into three divisions, and the top division, of 11 clubs, invariably ended up supplying to the state side.

"Had it not been for the college circuit followed by such a strong club circuit, I doubt if we would have been able to build such a strong side from the late-80s to mid-90s," says Bhave, who led Maharashtra to the Ranji final in 1992-93.

The emphasis on clubs and the top invitational tournaments organised by the major ones resulted in Pune emerging as a dominating centre in Maharashtra cricket. But it also restricted opportunities for players from the districts. Except for the odd fast bowler, the districts weren't well represented in the state team.

Realising there was a lack of opportunities and infrastructure for players from the districts, the first thing Shirke did after taking charge of the association in 2004, following a prolonged legal battle with his predecessor, the late Dhnyaneshwar Agashe, was get an inter-district invitational league underway.

Twenty-two districts, including Pune, affiliated to the MCA, along with 15 top clubs from the city, have been divided into six groups. The league stage is followed by a super league and semis and final. While such an extensive tournament has indeed increased the number of opportunities for cricketers across the state, many believe that quality has been compromised at the cost of quantity.

The existing format has also been criticised for detracting from the role of the clubs in building the state's cricket. The extensive invitational league itinerary, involving the senior, Under-19 and U-16 age groups, has not only prevented clubs from picking district players, it has also meant the major clubs have no time in the calendar to organise their prestigious tournaments.

Shirke, though, rubbishes the criticism. "It's a flawed argument. It is not easy to come to that conclusion. From the MCA's perspective, the aspirations of the cricketers throughout the territory have to be catered to. As a result, the tournament structure has to filter through lower down the rung. That's where the pyramid-shaped tournament structure is important.

"Earlier, the clubs had a monopolistic system, so they used to pick and choose players, especially those from the districts, who had to beg for them to be included. But with such players now representing their own districts, the clubs' supply line has dried. It has been proven across the world that the territorial teams system is a pathway to success."

But what about the MCA denying permission to the clubs to host their own major tournaments? "Nobody has been denied permission. It's just that the priority has to be the MCA invitational league. If the clubs ask for permission to host their tournaments without clashing with the main tournament - like what PYC has done with the Kalewar Shield right now - we are very happy to allot dates to them," Shirke says.

"And if the clubs are cribbing about the lack of opportunities and quality cricket, they have no right to do so. Earlier, ten to 11 clubs used to compete in the main league, now we have 15 club teams from Pune competing in the tournament. And if the club teams were so superior, why haven't they been able to win even one title over the last seven to eight years?"

The building of an ultra-modern stadium, combined with an IPL team that has virtually no connection to the city, and a new local tournament structure whose emphasis is on the districts has put Maharashtra cricket at a crossroads. It remains to be seen if it regains its reputation as a domestic force to reckon with or joins the bottom-rung teams in the Ranji Trophy.

Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo