Has Ranji Trophy experience lost its relevance?
The Ranji Trophy is India's premier inter-state FC cricket event. It has often been a matter of pride for a player to represent a state in this event- not just to get into the Indian team, but more to win the trophy. Things have gone downhill lately, for one of India's oldest cricketing events. In the recent past, almost going back a decade, we see Indian selectors overlooking Ranji Trophy accomplishments and even the much-bullied IPL to pick squads primarily on age groups and possibly Facebook likes- most of India's preferred young brigade score more on social network fan counts than their experienced Ranji stalwart counterparts.
Abhinav Mukund has now become India's preferred Test opener, and hopefully this is his last Test series until two more domestic seasons. Why pick him ahead of Wasim Jaffer? Amit Mishra has had an enviable domestic/reserves record, but often misses out due to one poor match on a flat deck. His replacement, Pragyan Ojha, has played only a fraction of as many games, and has largely been poor as a replacement, over a long stretch of Tests. Another casualty of Ojha love was veteran spinner and Bedi protege Murali Kartik, who went public about being left out. Another disgruntled omitted stalwart who went public was Badrinath. That doesn't even list Amol Mazumdar, who has a formidable FC record, but strangely can't play for India, or Pankaj Dharmani, the one solution for India's wicketkeeper-batsman problem of the early 2000s, that then-young Parthiv Patel could never be. Vinay Kumar and Pankaj Singh have decent or even very good FC/List-A records, but miss out to a whole lot of mediocre seamers who have nothing on their side except (collectively) youth. All the unlucky ones have played at least fifty FC matches.
Most Ranji stalwarts, often overlooked, silently work harder and amass another successful domestic season, until a call-up or eventual retirement. Some complain publicly, like JP Yadav, Badrinath and Kartik. Some go to an extreme, of bribing the selectors, like Abhijeet Kale may have done to make an India A team. That man Kale had a fantastic domestic record, but was left out for Rohan Gavaskar, always an average player, who made it big representing an Eastern state. It could get, and going by fan tales, has got, worse on many occasions. With age cheating being a factor in domestic cricket, often done by associations to win games easily, players may start forging their own ages just to become eligible for India- if an age under 25 is a benchmark of eligibility.
Was the IPL a factor? After all, Ojha figured in DC's win in 2009- when almost all the Indians had a poor series- but Mishra is all over Ojha even in the IPL. Clearly, young Ojha has got the most of his youth. Each time the Indian team loses one game too many, the IPL is blamed, but even from the few IPL successes India has had, selections always favour the young. That's why Suresh Raina has had a very, very long free ride in the IPL era, even making the Test side, while older players like Yusuf Pathan and Amit Mishra have struggled to hold their places. And just recently, domestic greenhorn Rahul Sharma was apparently a prospect despite a brief (and poor) domestic record, due to his IPL 2011success.
But why has the Ranji Trophy ceased to be relevant for national selection? One may argue there's a huge gap between domestic and international cricket. Ironically, the IPL tries hard to bridge the gap by bringing in international players and having India's best play the whole season. But otherwise, where do you look? The IPL? All cricket isn't T20. The T20 specialists struggle even in fifty overs. Youth cricket? India has gone that way far too long, and has had to pay with failure to make it big, until lately. Someone with heavy domestic experience has seen the ups and downs, and someone with a lot of success can take that forward into international cricket. These youngsters don't have it. Quality of pitches is another factor, and that can be worked upon.
What can be a solution? Get India players to turn up regularly for Ranji cricket. After the first India cap, there should be a minimum cap on the number of domestic games played. Yes, that beast called scheduling comes in the way- but then, you can work around it by getting overseas players in their off-season. The BCCI needs to get that in mind. If the Duleep Trophy is so much more important, hold it in the off-season, and also invite an international reserve/champion-state team to play, like England and SL sent their teams then. Better economics can help improve the standard of cricket (or at least surfaces and facilities) in the Ranji Trophy, but hang on, economics goes to the wind for a board as rich as the BCCI.
And more importantly, the next India cap should be given to a player who has turned in at least fifty (or let's make it sixty, taking both state and zone games) domestic matches. Let a golden jubilee of Ranji or Hazare games be a bigger factor in selection than the age certificate. When there is a vacancy in the Indian team, give it to the one with more FC/List-A experience outside internationals. You can't make a World No 1 team out of sprightly young boys- you need the he-men of the cricket structure. Let the India cap be earned like the legendary coin on Vijay Merchant's middle stump.