The premier Indian domestic tournament, Ranji Trophy once again proved that cricket in India is rapidly moving away from the big cities. On January 1 2018, Vidarbha, for the first time in their history, won the tournament beating Delhi in the finals. Last year, Gujarat had got the better of Mumbai a team that had earlier won the cup 41 times.
Now, the question arises is what has brought about this change? Has cricket in smaller towns caught up with the major cricket playing centres or is cricket moving away from the test centres?
Cricket has always been played in every corner of India. It is the greatest legacy that the British had left behind. There were many talented cricketers coming from small towns and cities and making their way into the state capital cities. It was because at that time jobs were available in big cities and a youngster with cricket potential would get the opportunity to showcase his capabilities there. The major cities had cricket infrastructure, administrators, former cricketers and the media for a cricketer’s growth and recognition. Furthermore, club cricket in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata was patronised by corporates and it was through these institutions that cricket and cricketers flourished in India after the patronage of the Royals had diminished.
With very little opportunity and sub-standard facilities in their own backyards, cricketers wormed their way into better pastures. This therefore, gave one a wrong impression about the origin of the cricketers in the past.
The Ranji Trophy in its initial days, had professional cricketers. The great C K Nayudu was from Nagpur, Vidarbha but played for Holkar, Hyderabad Rajputana and the United Provinces. Similarly, Vinoo Mankad who was born in Jamnagar, played as a professional for seven different state teams. The flamboyant cricketer, Salim Durani, was another cricketer who played initially for Saurashtra then for Gujarat and finally for Rajasthan.
Cricket in India has now become not only a commercial success for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and their affiliated state associations, but also a profession for a cricketer to make money.
Earlier, a cricketer was given different allowances and travel and hotel accommodation, which solely depended on the finances of the state associations.
Fortunately, the money in BCCI coffers has changed the situation for the better and therefore, has played a vital part in all players being given similar treatment and remuneration.
The rule concerning professional cricketers was gradually changed by the BCCI and only two criteria were considered for eligibility — first, one could play from the state that one was born in and the second was on the basis of their residence.
This rule led to the cricket associations of the big commercial cities to flourish and cricketers in order to make a living, had to settle there. The smaller centres were therefore, left with average players and poorly paid cricketers, who struggled to find an identity. A team such as Saurashtra in the 70s was normally beaten in less than three days, as matches were of that duration in those days. An outright win against the minnows was what strong sides aimed for to give them the maximum points. Indian cricket had an uneven balance of competitiveness as the rich cricket associations and test match centres always had the best talent to choose from.
The last decade and more has seen an important change in the structure of Indian cricket. Cricket associations can now have three professional cricketers playing for them. This has brought about a positive change in Indian cricket. Many distinguished and accomplished cricketers, old and new were hired to bolster the lesser-known sides. A good example of this was when Maharashtra’s cricket stalwart and captain, Hrishikesh Kanitkar went over along with Aakash Chopra and Parida to Rajasthan to boost a side that was struggling even in the plate division. They went on to win the Ranji Trophy, two years in a row and Rajasthan cricket benefited immensely from it.
Similarly, the batting king of Ranji Trophy, Wasim Jaffar who earlier as a player and captain had won the Ranji Trophy eight times for Mumbai, went over to Vidarbha and became an important cog in the wheel in their recent victory. He along with the other professional cricketer, Ganesh Satish, brought about a complete change in the attitude and approach of an unknown and unheralded Vidarbha. Their presence gave the young Vidarbha players the confidence and the mental strength to play their way towards victory. They beat Punjab convincingly in their first outing and, thereafter, never looked back.
This brings one to an Indian coach who has proven to be the best in India, Chandrakant Pandit. He has been instrumental in several Mumbai victories, but to take the Vidarbha side to such heights in just one year, is a remarkable. The new Lodha Committee recommendations may not permit him to take up any other assignment due to the conflict of interest clause, but Indian cricket may miss a person of his calibre by not utilising his services fully.
The Lodha proposals as regards age and conflict of interest is acceptable for administrators and office bearers, but restricting proven cricketers as coaches or mentors, with or without certification does not augur well. A Bishan Bedi, Prasanna or a Chandrashekar’s input, at any age would be a boon for any upcoming young spinner. The focus after all is to better and improve Indian cricket.
(The author is a former India cricketer)