Vantage point

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Initially I thought the Ranji Trophy final would be between Mumbai and Sehwag. But the Sehwag vs Tamilnadu semifinal ended with a victory for the TN side yesterday, as Sehwag got out on 99. The 99 was a fine innings and had the rest of the Delhi team given him even an iota of support, they would've won. But it was as if the rest of the 10 guys were absent, so one sided was Sehwag's effort. That is why I say that Sehwag(and not Delhi) lost to TN by 132 runs.

The final will be from 5th May in Mumbai. They have looked as devastating in this Ranji trophy as the Australians at this year's World Cup. This superb form in spite of Sachin Tendulkar not being able to play for them,either because of national commitments or injury, shows that Mumbai are re-emerging as the powerhouse of Indian cricket. Imagine if Sachin could play for them!!!! The rest of the teams would refuse to compete.

This year the Ranji trophy format was changed and there were very few boring matches. The results were immediate as the matches were exciting and the semis lineup ( Mumbai vs Baroda and Delhi vs Tamilnadu) had the best 4 teams squaring off. For a country totally crazy about cricket, we pay laughably little attention towards Ranji Trophy. Like all other faults of Indian cricket, this too can be squarely blamed on the BCCI. Decades ago, the Ranji Trophy was a popular contest with crowds thronging to watch matches and passionately supporting their teams. But then, the BCCI let in a slew of teams and made it boring. Close to 30 teams played against each other for the Ranji Trophy. 30!!!!

Can you imagine how boring that becomes? Australia has 6 sides in their domestic tournament. Most other test nations have less than 10. The only other country to have an abominably high number of teams in their domestic league is England....and we all know where English cricket is headed.

Besides, the Ranji Trophy was played in a zonal format that made it even more boring. So in the West zone, you had Mumbai, Maharashtra, Baroda, Gujarat and Saurashtra playing each other every year in the initial stages. So predictably boring. The only match worth following would be Mumbai vs Baroda. All other matches would be near foregone conclusions.

No wonder then that crowds began to stay away from Ranji Trophy. The awareness has sunk to new levels. How many of you would be able to name your state team's captain? How many of you know that this year the Ranji Trophy was revamped?

The zonal format has been done away with and an EPL type format has come in. Based on previous year's results, teams are divided into 'plates'. So the best teams form a separate 'plate' and play within themselvces. The minnows have a separate plate and play within themselves. Then a predecided number of teams from each plate makes it to the knockout stage. At the end of the season, the plates are rearranged based on the results.

So this year, good teams like Mumbai and Baroda did not have to waste their time playing absolute no-hopers in the first round. As a result, the Ranji Trophy was exciting this year.

However it will be some time before crowds flock back to the matches. Firstly, the board is run by nincompoops. They are not professionals whose only job is to run cricket, like in Australia. They are all "honorary" officials. So while they do not draw a salary based on their work, they waste a lot of money having meaningless meetings in plush 5 star hotels and flying business class all around the world. The structure should be revamped to make it like a corporate house. Appoint managers and executives on a full time basis and then link their pay to certain parameters like the performance of the Indian team, the state of domestic cricket, newer talent coming up etc.

A better Ranji Trophy will give us a better national team for sure. But that is not the only thing. The Ranji Trophy is a cash cow whose udders seem to have turned invisible to everyone. There is so much money to be earned from the Ranji Trophy in a cricket crazed country like ours. But no one seems to have the common cricketing knowledge combined with common business sense to take advantage of the opportunity.

Right now, the time table of the domestic season is fixed randomly. Not much thought is put into it. Contrast this with Australia where they chalk out their season such that all the players of the national team will be able to play in the Sheffield Shield (now called the Pura Milk Cup I guess) and compete sincerely. So you have McGrath and Lee opening the bowling........for New South Wales as well.

Now the Indian team is considered full of stars. It is not like a few years back when only Tendulkar was a star. Now we have half a dozen players who would be mobbed if they went on the streets. In fact Zaheer Khan had to run off the field after the Mumbai-Baroda semis because a huge crowd of his fans stormed the pitch to meet him.

Imagine if Sehwag, Dravid, Nehra, Harbhajan, Zaheer, Saurav and Sachin were available for a majority of the domestic season matches? How cool would that be? I would love to see a full strength Baroda take on a full strength Mumbai. Imagine the papers screaming about the 'Zaheer vs Sachin battle' or the 'Dravid vs Nehra battle' instead of the usual international battles. I am sure a match like that will draw bigger crowds than an India - Bangladesh or India - Zimbabwe match. See, when we play Australia or Pakistan, the spectators are there because of Indian players and the opposition as well. Watching Warnie or Steve Waugh is as important as watching Tendulkar and Dravid. But against teams like BDesh and Zimbabwe, all we care about is our own players. No one cares if Aminul Islam plays well or Andy Blignaut scores another half century. We are interested in only our 11. So instead of playing unscheduled impropmtu tournaments like in Dhaka, why not let the players play in the Ranji Trophy?

Once good players start playing and matches become exciting, the passionate "support" for "our" teams will return. Right now everyone might be willing to argue if Kenya should be made a test playing nation instead of Bangladesh. But ask a Lucknowi about the UP team, a Puneri about the Maharashtra team or a Bangalorean about the Karnataka team, and they will start yawning. Once the pride for your team is instilled, the overall level of the game as well as the money earned from it will go up tremendously.

In my opinion, milking money and talent from the Ranji Trophy is one of the easiest things possible right now. I mean come on, I am not talking of a Herculean task like improving Indian football or something. All that is needed is a little foresight in chalking out time tables so that the stars will not be too tired to play in the Ranji season. You will also need a good marketing plan with effective advertising to hype up the Ranji trophy. That does not seem too hard. Based on rough calculations, I would put the total commercial worth of a rejuvenated Ranji Trophy at about 10 crores (100 million rupees).

What gets my goat is that no one seems to see it. The udders are invisible....and my fingers are itching to reach out and milk some talent and money for Indian cricket. Alas, I am not in the board.