Only a few hundred spectators were sprinkled around Wankhede Stadium on 28 January as Mumbai demolished Saurashtra to win the Ranji Trophy yet again. These matches used to draw massive crowds, but are now usually played in empty stadiums, with stray applause echoing around the deserted stands. There was a slightly better turnout the previous day, when Mumbai opener Wasim Jaffer became the highest run getter in the tournament history as well as the person to score the maximum number of Ranji Trophy centuries. It was a Sunday when Jaffer was at the crease, and the man who gave him company for some time from the other end was Sachin Tendulkar. Both reasons, especially the latter, helped pull in a few thousands for a couple of hours. Then the eerie silence reigned once again.
It was not always so. Tendulkar will surely remember the stands packed with cheering fans during the nail-biting 1991 final, when Mumbai played Haryana for top honours. It is perhaps the greatest Ranji final ever. Mumbai were chasing 355 to win the game on the final day. They began badly, till Tendulkar and his captain, Dilip Vengsarkar, came together. The younger man took charge, leading a breathtaking counter-attack. He scored 96 of the 134 runs the two put on together. One stroke remains etched in my mind: A straight six off Kapil Dev that went deep into the stands. Tendulkar fell. Vengsarkar, by then limping because of a strained hamstring, tore into the Haryana attack with only one functional leg. He eventually ran out of partners, with Mumbai a tantalizing two runs short of victory. The last wicket was a messy run-out. Vengsarkar flung his bat in disgust, sank to the ground, and then stood up with tears running down his face. Some 30,000 spectators cheered him off the field, even as Haryana won the Ranji Trophy for the first time.
Any cricket fan of a certain vintage will remember how important the Ranji Trophy was in his annual cricketing calendar, on par with the Test matches featuring India and the games in England and Australia that were brought home by the likes of John Arlott through the mad hiss-and-crackle of short wave radio. It is easy to get nostalgic about those glory days of the Ranji Trophy, but much has changed since 1991. The advent of cable television has made quality cricket available to fans round the year, and that too in the comfort of their homes. The packed international schedule also means that the best cricketers rarely have the time to play for their local teams. The Indian Premier League (IPL) juggernaut has destroyed whatever vestigial interest there was in domestic cricket. Fans once had to troop to Ranji Trophy matches when they wanted to watch the best players display their skills; they no longer need to do so.
K.S. Ranjitsinhji. In its initial decade, it remained second in importance to the Bombay Pentangular, which was based on community teams (the Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Europeans and the Rest). The Pentangular was shut down only in 1946. As late at 1959, Vijay Merchant would complain in an essay published in Wisden, the annual cricketing Bible: “We have our national championship for the Ranji Trophy but the performances put up are not given due recognition. When a visiting team arrives in this country we make a new start with cricket camps, trial matches, performances against visitors in the preliminary fixtures, etc., but form in our premier tournament is hardly ever taken into consideration. Thus, except for the semi-finals and the finals there is no interest in this tournament on the part of the selectors or organizers.”
Despite these early hiccups, the Ranji Trophy eventually became the main showcase of Indian cricketing talent. The golden era was undoubtedly between 1956 and 1985. Bombay (as Mumbai was then called) won in 23 of these 30 years, including an unbelievable 15-year winning streak between 1959 and 1973. The only comparable example of dominance on the cricket field was when Surrey won the English county championship for seven consecutive years between 1952 and 1958. Yorkshire won seven times in the 1930s, but never more than thrice in a row.
Bishan Singh Bedi, Madan Lal and the Amarnath brothers (Mohinder and Surinder) signed up for the city team. Hyderabad was blessed with artistes such as the Nawab of Pataudi, Abbas Ali Baig and M.L. Jaisimha, the cricketing forefathers of Mohammad Azharuddin and V.V.S. Laxman. But perhaps the greatest duel was between Bombay and what was then called Mysore. The Mysore team was set on the path to future glory by its captain V. Subramanya, who was followed by E.A.S. Prasanna, B.S. Chandrasekhar, G.R. Viswanath and later, Brijesh Patel. It was Mysore that eventually ended the Bombay hegemony in 1974.
The precipitous decline in the importance of the Ranji Trophy is not just a matter for nostalgic complaints. There are two reasons why we should mourn what has happened. First, all great sporting duels are enriched by memories of past encounters. A Bombay versus Karnataka match was special because it was seen as the latest edition of a long cricketing contest. The IPL, for all its razzmatazz and popularity, may never develop such deep loyalties, precisely because it promises ephemeral joy rather than deep commitment. I am a regular watcher of IPL matches, but find it hard to believe that a Mumbai Indians versus Kolkata Knight Riders game, for example, will have any significance other than its immediate impact on that season’s rankings. The matches are too short and the players too mobile for the IPL to build a lasting narrative of great sporting contests.
The second reason is that the old Ranji Trophy matches were a route to pass on local cricketing traditions. In Bombay, the mantle of technically-sound batting passed seamlessly from Vijay Merchant to Vijay Manjrekar to Ajit Wadekar to Sunil Gavaskar to Vengsarkar to Tendulkar. That is over six decades. The lack of top cricketers in the tournament these days chokes this pipeline of tradition.
I am told that the sheer presence of Tendulkar in the Mumbai dressing room this year has offered important lessons to the younger players, including the fact that they should be at the nets on time and take every practice session seriously. Youngsters from the teams that played Mumbai this season have also sought out the great man for advice.
The golden age of the Ranji Trophy was over long ago. It is no longer the only stepping stone to a place in the national team either. The stars rarely play. Few bother to watch the games. The decline is perhaps inevitable, but I cannot help feeling that Indian cricket has lost something important.
As one final reminder of how much the Ranji Trophy meant for Indian cricket, here is an anecdote recounted by Gavaskar. He was a schoolboy when Bombay met Mysore in a semi-final in 1967. Ajit Wadekar scored a famous 323 while Dilip Sardesai scored 111. They faced two of the greatest spinners the world has ever seen—Prasanna and Chandrasekhar. “It was a great sight for a student like me who was trying to get into cricket. Two outstanding players of spin bowling and two outstanding spin bowlers were trying to get on top of each other.” Prasanna loved to toss up the ball, and the quicksilver footwork of Sardesai was better suited to dealing with him. Wadekar found Chandrasekhar easier to bat to. “The result was a massive partnership and it was as good a contest between the bat and the ball that one could have hoped to see,” writes Gavaskar in a pen portrait of Prasanna.
There are still many talented players appearing in the Ranji Trophy. The classically-correct Jaffer is but one example. But the glory days are gone, perhaps forever.