Reports suggest that there will be a packed house over the weekend at Lahli in Haryana to watch Sachin Tendulkar play his last Ranji Trophy match. Not entirely unexpected as this starts the countdown to his 200th Test and finally retirement from cricket, which now seems to have gripped the entire country.

But this piece is not so much about Tendulkar’s retirement as about how domestic cricket can be succoured by the participation of star players. True, not every match involving stars will have the same degree of “emotional involvement" for fans as Tendulkar’s sign off from first-class cricket. But there is enough evidence to suggest that if the big players are not participating, there are few takers for the Ranji, Duleep and Irani Trophy games.

Sports fans, even diehards, are far more demanding today than, say, 40-50 years ago. Given the alternatives that abound today for recreational activities, only something stellar will attract spectators. Purists might think this as a niggardly outlook on sport, but in the hurly-burly of modern living, the paisa vasool factor is paramount.

Interestingly, as I see it, the decline in spectatorship for domestic cricket started just around the time Tendulkar made his first-class debut a quarter of a century back, playing for Bombay against Gujarat at the Wankhede Stadium in late 1988. No fault of his, obviously. That match itself had a goodly crowd which wanted to see the 15-year-old prodigy who had been making waves in schools’ cricket, what with the world record 664-run partnership with Vinod Kambli having come in February of that year.

Harbhajan Singh in the Duleep Trophy in 2012-13. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times

This was vastly different from the 1960s, 1970s and the early 1980s, as cricket lovers of my vintage will testify. Domestic cricket in India was robust then—in competitiveness as well as spectatorship—and was truly looked forward to.

In Bombay (as the city was known then), there would be packed houses to see the home team play Hyderabad or Delhi—or West Zone play South or North. Rivalry between these teams would be intense, and the competitive flavour would be enhanced by the presence of marquee players.

M.L. Jaisimha leading a powerful Hyderabad side, including Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Syed Abid Ali, K. Jayantilal, Naushir Mehta, Mumtaz Hussain, Krishnamurthy and Govindraj, to play against Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Ashok Mankad, Dilip Sardesai, Padmakar Shivalkar and Abdul Ismail was fanciful enough to compel bunking college. Bishan Singh Bedi, with his brigade of Delhiwallahs, too commanded as much fan following in Bombay.

From the late 1980s, the allure of domestic cricket started diminishing and by the turn of the millennium, it had virtually vanished—irrespective of the quality of cricket being played or the importance of domestic tournaments for Indian cricket.

The reason for this was clear: no stars, no spectators. The extent to which participation of big players in domestic cricket had eroded comes across tellingly when you look at the careers of the two master batsmen from Mumbai, Gavaskar and Tendulkar.

In his 25 years in first-class cricket, Tendulkar will play 310 matches (including the game against Haryana and the two Tests against West Indies in November), of which 200 are Tests; by contrast, Gavaskar in his 18-year career played 348 matches, of which 125 were Tests.

It is not just Tendulkar, but also Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, etc., who became rare in domestic cricket. Obviously these statistics must be read in conjunction with the increased load of One Day Internationals (ODIs) in the Tendulkar era, but the impact on spectatorship for Ranji and other tournaments was adverse.

Just how much the presence of major players means to spectators becomes evident from the massive support for the Indian Premier League (IPL). While the Twenty20 (T20) format provided a new and exciting flavour, this is unsustainable without the participation of the stars as the tepid response to other T20 tournaments—even in the World Championships—would show.

The argument for established stars playing domestic cricket goes beyond just attracting fans, of course. It gives newcomers the opportunity to rub shoulders with them, soak in their experiences, get the learning curve moving upwards quicker than might otherwise happen.

Also, this is the best platform for those stars who are struggling for form to rediscover their rhythm and/or mojo, which, in turn, facilitates better assessment by selectors rather than just going by reputation or past record.

Packed schedules are clearly a challenge on how to revive domestic cricket. Going by India’s recent successes internationally, it might also seem misplaced to argue so much in favour of domestic cricket. But ignoring “home" cricket is perilous just because of some success, which could dry up without warning. The pipeline of Indian cricket is also its lifeline: it must be preserved with vigour and imagination.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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