GOING, GOING, almost gone. That's how the progress, or the lack of it, of university cricket in India can be best described.
Ask any old-timer to talk about cricket at the college and university level in the good old days, and their faces immediately light up as they recall fond memories. "Those were the days… the passion and enthusiasm was unbelievable, the sense of belonging to one's college and university was incredible, the razor-sharp competition..." the memories are remarkably similar and go on and on.
Those were the best days of college and varsity cricket. Tournaments like the Rohinton Baria Trophy would witness keenly contested matches, with neither team giving an inch to their opponents. Matches till the semifinals would be three-day affairs, with the semis and the final being played till a result was reached. Later, however, they were restricted to five days.
"I remember that one match between Mahindra College, Patiala, and Hindu College, Amritsar, went on for nine days," said former Punjab Ranji Trophy captain and BCCI joint secretary M.P. Pandove.
"Another time, an inter-varsity final between the Delhi and Bombay Universities finished after seven days of hard cricket," he continued. "The passionate sense of belonging to one's college and universities, the intense preparations for tournaments, which would begin immediately after college opened for the new season and the keen competition, set the standards really high."
No wonder then that the people who wore their pride on their sleeves while playing for their colleges and universities are saddened at the steady decline the game at this level has been experiencing.
Back then, breaking into the Ranji side was considered easier than making the cut at the university level. "It was really tough to make it to the varsity side… I played Rohinton Baria after I had made it to the Ranji side," Bishan Singh Bedi has gone on record admitting it.
A tour match against a Combined University side would be a regular feature on the itinerary of a touring side, with the university side, more often than not, proving a tough nut to crack.
Players who shone for their universities would invariably make it to the India squad.
Greats like Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor, ML Jaisimha, Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai and Sunil Gavaskar, among many others were all products of university sides.
Unfortunately, soon the nursery began decaying.
The Association of Indian Universities (AIU), which conducted tournaments, soon began to feel the pinch of the rising cost of equipment, infrastructure and rise in other related expenses.
This paucity of funds saw the AIU cut down the duration - the very lifeline of university cricket - of games. The 'days' game degenerated into mere 40-over affairs and this, is the general consensus, was the beginning of the end of university cricket. The game at this level gradually lost its charm and seriousness - and soon it was being played just for the heck of it.
With the AIU losing interest, the BCCI too, quite surprisingly, decided against stepping in, ignoring its own inter-varsity zonal tournament for Vizzy Trophy. The Board, though, continued to fund the tournament. It is a different matter altogether that the amount it coughed up wasn't enough to meet the expenses of conducting the tournament. Worse, it actually stopped taking note of performances in this tournament, reducing it to a mere formality.
"Actually the standards dwindled big time in a short span of time. Hardly any player emerged from university cricket. We tried to form a Combined University team a while ago, but the AIU couldn't find 11 decent cricketers," Pandove says frankly.
This decline in varsity cricket led to more importance on age-group specific tournaments, which the BCCI conducted. Soon, the u-19 system emerged as the best alternative. The u-19 tournaments saw the likes of Anil Kumble and Ajay Jadeja emerge on the scene in the early 90's.
Domestic u-19 tournaments gained further importance after India's victory in the u-19 World Cup in the 99-00 season.
Players such as Yuvraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif and Reetinder Singh Sodhi, who had made their mark at the World Cup, were soon playing for the senior national side.
But along with the success, the new route to the national side was fraught with failure as well. The major criticism this 'route' has invited is that players are being thrust into the national scene too early. The players, say the critics, are too raw and immature to survive the gruelling international standards and consequently fall by the wayside in due course of time. Players like Parthiv Patel and Reetinder Singh Sodhi being classic cases in point.
"It's actually a double-edged sword. One can also see it as an opportunity to give talented players the taste of international cricket early on. It's all well if a player succeeds, but if he fails, he will always have age on his side to work on his flaws and come back," Pandove reasons.
Nonetheless, university cricket, asserts Pandove, is too important to be ignored. "We have a few plans up our sleeves to revive university cricket. Hopefully, cricket will again thrive in schools and universities," he rounds off. Fingers crossed.