It is the country’s premier domestic tournament and one step away from instant fame and an India cap. Players sweat it out for years at various levels to earn a Ranji Trophy call up because it can change their lives — and given how many young boys play cricket and dream of glory, the competition is viciously intense.
For most, that is. But if you’re the son of a top government officer in Uttar Pradesh, then, well, you just walk in to the Ranji squad. Literally.
UP’s Ranji squad, currently playing a quarterfinal against Gujarat, has an unusual passenger. A 17th (additional) member to the original squad of 16, Kshitij Lal is the son of Mayawati’s Principal Secretary, Netram.
Lal, 22, has been with the team since their league game against the Railways in Delhi about four matches ago and it seems like he’s here to stay.
The intriguing part about Lal’s selection is that he is neither recognised as a youngster with tremendous talent, nor has he ever represented the state at any junior level. He has his own team of friends and they get together for friendly games in local tournaments in Lucknow. So how has he made the grade? Everyone knows, but no one’s telling. He is there, say officials, “as per the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association's wishes”.
So what does Lal do at matches? This reporter has been travelling with the team through this season and Lal has spent his time on the sidelines either sitting or sleeping, even during games.
If he’s training, then it’s somewhere private. And unlike other extras, he does not even carry drinks, prompting India pacer RP Singh to ask on Friday: "Arre Lal, pani lekar nahi jaoge kya (Lal, won't you carry in the water)?” RP then laughed, because it was a rhetorical question.
At the last game in Bangalore, team sources say skipper Mohammad Kaif was very upset about Lal’s not doing duty like any regular extra and instead just sitting around. Kaif was reportedly told to pipe down. Players are resentful but nervous about the situation. The team management will say nothing about his inclusion. And if you ask selectors or officials, the standard reaction is, “Please mujhe marva mat dena. (Please don't get me into big trouble).”
You promise not to name them and they open up, warily. Lal, who bowls left-arm spin, apparently did turn up for UP’s under-17 trials in 2002. “He was accommodated for the trials as a favour to his father, who was then Sports Secretary,” said a then junior selector. “But even so, we could not select him for the team, he just wasn't good enough.”
So he's not good enough for the junior team but makes the Ranji squad? HT made two attempts on Saturday evening to talk to Lal himself about his cricketing credentials.
The first time, asked what he thought he had done to get into the squad, he merely laughed. “What should I say,” he said before walking off. Later, asked again, he didn’t laugh, just indicated he had nothing more to say. “What can we do?” a director of the UPCA told HT. “You know how things work in UP. We don’t want more trouble with the government here. Now his father has the CM’s ear.”
Another official is just belligerent. “How is it your business?” he asked. “It doesn't harm anyone and the UPCA has a right to oblige anyone through money that is its own.”
Which, actually, it is not. Every association makes money either from sponsors, gate sales from match receipts (taxpayers money) or from massive grants given by the Indian cricket board (BCCI). When this was pointed out, yet another official said any questions should be directed to UPCA secretary Rajiv Shukla.
Shukla, a Member of Parliament, was unavailable for comment, despite repeated efforts and messages left with his office.