After the Test leg of the South Africa tour ended, India coach Rahul Dravid said that although the likes of Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer will need to wait to find permanent places in the Indian middle order, they should take heart from the fact that every time they have got the opportunity, they have proved themselves worthy with impactful performances. But what about the several other cricketers on the fringes of the national side who rely on domestic cricket to get noticed?
The last Ranji Trophy season was cancelled due to the pandemic and this season's tournament has been postponed, with the BCCI considering organising it across two stages.
We spoke to three top domestic performers about how they have kept themselves motivated while dealing with the uncertainty over tournament schedules.
Saurashtra fast bowler Jaydev Unadkat, 30, has been a top earner at IPL auctions and a consistent wicket-taker in domestic cricket, but hasn't found a place in India A sides. The last of his 18 internationals came four years ago. Bengal batter Abhimanyu Easwaran, 26, is a regular India A player and was in the Test reserves last year. Thirty-six-year-old Faiz Fazal, batter and Vidarbha captain, has not got any India opportunities since playing an ODI against Zimbabwe in 2016.
Last two Ranji seasons: 106 wkts at 14.68 from 18 matches
"Dear red ball, please give me one more chance. I'll make you proud, promise!"
That was a tweet I posted on January 4, which might have been confused with me referring to a return to Test cricket after my single appearance in 2010 when I was 19. Actually, it was about missing the Ranji Trophy.
I miss the feeling of setting the batsman up. I miss that feeling of swinging the red ball both ways and watching the batsman struggle. When I bowled in the practice sessions in January, the way the ball was moving and coming out of the hand was as good as it used to be a couple of years back, when I was going through possibly the best time of my career, so I was very excited for this Ranji season [2021-22]. That was why I put out that tweet, hoping the Ranji season would happen this time.
I last bowled with a red ball in a first-class match in the 2019-20 Ranji final, and I was so proud to win the title and finish with 67 wickets. That season gave me fresh hopes of playing for India again, but without any accompanying stress of "will I, won't I?"
I have endured two phases in my career, in terms of how I played and set goals. I had a goal to play 100 Tests when I played my first Test in 2010. And I stuck to that goal till about 2014-15. I don't do that anymore. Now I approach my journey season by season, thinking that if I put my heart into the domestic season, I will get my chance sooner or later. I developed that mindset after sustaining a stress fracture in 2014.
Since returning from injury, I realised playing every domestic season was a blessing and whatever chances I get, I should make the most of them. And every day I am out there, I should feel that I had fun rather than always having that urge to play for the national team, because that is taxing.
My goal is still to play for India, but I am not consumed by it like I was at the start of my career. I didn't really enjoy winning a Ranji game back then like I do now. That was the turning point - I started enjoying every game I played. I tried to set more immediate goals, which made it a little more realistic and I could be in control of the situation. Selections are not in your hand.
The most difficult times [for me] are while watching good, intense spells of fast bowling in Test cricket. I was on the edge of my sofa for [Jasprit] Bumrah's spells in the Newlands Test, and watching the way [Pat] Cummins, [Josh] Hazlewood and [Mitchell] Starc bowled in the first Ashes Test. I pace around in front of the TV and start talking about the spells with whoever is around. More often than not, it is Rinny, my wife. I do wish I could be there doing such things [myself], because that's what you play for, that's what you practise for.
In those moments Rinny, who is a lawyer, turns into a therapist and calms me down. Even if I say nothing about missing playing at the highest level, she will say: "Our time will come, you be ready for it." It's not just your dreams and desires. Your loved ones are involved too.
Last year I was part of a group of players shortlisted by the BCCI to attend a fitness camp at the NCA. That kind of thing obviously motivates you. And when you go there and coaches or selectors have a word with you, saying they are a looking at you or whatever, that could be very important for us players on the fringes. That has not happened to me until now. There have been times where I was told that they do not want me as a net bowler because I am a senior player and they want to give exposure to young bowlers as net bowlers. It has been especially tough when I see India travelling overseas with a large contingent.
On January 2, last year Ashwin bhai [R Ashwin] texted me during the last Australia tour, where nearly every member of the squad, including the reserve bowlers, got a chance to play the four-Test series [because of injuries]. He said: "I feel for you and the way you have performed in the last [Ranji] season. But be right where you are in terms of your game and your mindset. Your time will come."
The last time I was in the Indian dressing room was during the 2018 Nidahas Trophy. The last time I went on tour with India A was in 2016. I'm not losing sleep thinking about the next India call-up, but I am holding my breath about returning to play red-ball cricket. Please make it happen!
Last two Ranji seasons: 1119 runs at 46.62 from 16 matches
On May 30 last year, I got my first India whites while the Test squad was in quarantine in Mumbai. I put them on at lunch and only took them off around dinner time. I was soaking up the mood of being in contention to play for India.
For the next three months I enjoyed being in the company of some of the best cricketers in the world. I did not play a game but I learned a lot. Watching Virat Kohli bat in the nets was an experience. Whether he was batting against a spinner, fast bowler, or the Sidearm, I don't think there was one moment when he wasn't giving 100%.
That approach is something he has built over the years. I wanted to develop that kind of mindset and that intent of getting on top of the ball, or getting into a good position to play the ball, or while leaving, doing so with good footwork and knowledge of where your off stump is. Following that process on every single ball regardless of whether you are knocking, facing a spinner or facing underarm deliveries, that is something I have taken on board. It is less casual, I feel more focused. And if you are focused in practice, your conversion rate in the match is better.
That experience has only made me greedier to play for India. It was a desire I first felt confident about after my second Ranji season, in 2014-15, when the Cricket Association of Bengal gave me the Best Cricketer of the Year trophy. The belief got stronger during the 2017-18 A series against New Zealand, where I was India's highest run-getter in the ODI leg. I scored 83 and 49 in two wins against a bowling attack that had Matt Henry, Lockie Ferguson and Scott Kuggeleijn in it.
The pandemic has changed everything. I am 26, but in the absence of domestic cricket, I am left in the cold, like several hundred other players. Since 2014 I have put my name in the IPL auction but have gone unsold. This year is my ninth attempt. Why do I keep putting myself up for auction repeatedly? Because I have the belief that I'm a good enough T20 player and I have the stats to back that.
If I go unsold again, it is up to me to pick myself up and believe, but to do that we need domestic cricket. When the lockdown started in 2020, it was difficult to understand how long cricket would be disrupted for. Initially it felt like it would be some weeks, which became a month, which became several months. Suddenly the thought entered my mind: What if I don't get to play any domestic cricket? What am I preparing for? I was going to the ground six days a week, hitting hard, working on different aspects of my game, trying to challenge myself every day.
But then there are days I think: one day this will be over, and if I get picked for the Indian team, can I make a difference? That thought kept motivating me. And now, since I have been part of the Indian squad, I know that the chance could be round the corner. Every day I go to the ground, I think: If I get that chance, can I be better prepared for it? Can I be fitter? Can I improve my game more? It is just about being there and performing and then one day you will get your [India] cap. Thinking about that moment drives me forward, really.
Last two Ranji seasons: 1268 runs at 46.96 from 19 matches
As a team, we were training hard for this season's Ranji Trophy, until we got told on January 4 that the tournament was being put off indefinitely. Since then, I haven't touched my bat. We're all confused. It feels like suddenly there is nothing to look forward to. So many of my team-mates and players from other teams have kept asking me: "Do you know if we will play some cricket? If we are playing, should we leave the ball or hit sixes? How do we prepare?" Honestly, I've had no answers. Even now if the BCCI decides we'll play some form of first-class cricket, it's so difficult because many of us haven't have touched bat or ball for three weeks since the announcement.
At a personal level, the current scenario is very depressing. Yes, I can understand the BCCI has been trying its best, but for us players, it's like studying all year and taking no exams. Youngsters are losing crucial years and senior players like us, who don't have jobs, are also suffering. This is our only source of livelihood. We train hard all year round to play these five-six months of cricket and earn some money off it. I know the BCCI compensates us, but the pleasure you get by playing on the ground and earning out of it is very different. It's not like a nine-to-five job. It's skill-based and we're not able to use our skills. That is the most disappointing part.
When the pandemic broke out, the first priority was being safe. But the current situation makes me feel low, because we were looking forward to returning to first-class cricket so much. All of us are double-vaccinated, so it makes it harder to imagine we may not be playing any first-class cricket. Obviously there are scheduling issues. It's just a little over a month for the IPL and it's a fairly difficult task for the BCCI because there are 30-plus [Ranji] teams to be managed in a bubble, but yes, we're hoping for at least a month of red-ball cricket.
I've been looking for ways to get out of the house and spend time at the ground. I go to my club just to experience that vibe.
It feels so different to not be playing for so long. I'm not sure when I last stayed home for this long. I also play in the UK, so I've generally been out for nine to ten months of the year for the last eight or nine years.
You may ask me what keeps me going. It's the belief and drive to play Test cricket. At 36, I feel I'm way fitter than I was maybe at 25. Yes, I haven't played in the IPL since 2011, but that wasn't something I chased after ever. When I started playing cricket, it was about playing for the country. It is the happiest thing that happened to me, even though it was for a very short period in 2016. I love playing the game, it keeps me motivated a lot. That's why I go to the UK and play in the premier leagues every summer.
When Vidarbha won the Ranji Trophy in 2017-18, I made 912 runs. The following year, when we defended our title, I made 752 runs. I thought a call-up would come but it didn't.
But the game itself is a motivation for me, and my competitors have also been performing - Mayank Agarwal, Abhimanyu Easwaran, KL Rahul, Priyank Panchal - all of them have done well, but I still believe I can play Test cricket. Whatever cricket we play, I'm now just aiming to see Vidarbha win more and more trophies because they have given a lot to me.
At times like these you can slip into negativity, but my family has been my backbone. I'm very religious. I believe in god. These things have kept me strong. This life is a gift, which we should live happily. In these Covid times, I've seen friends pass away. It has taught us all a lesson: life is so unpredictable, enjoy it.