When Shane Watson saw Ajinkya Rahane bat in Australia’s tour game in Chandigarh in 2010, he was convinced he was a special talent. He immediately contacted his Rajasthan Royals management and insisted he wanted the Mumbai boy in his Indian Premier League team.
Interestingly, it was a three-day game and not a Twenty20 shootout that Rahane was playing in. This point is important, for how did the Mumbai Indians team management miss the unmistakable talent in the three years Rahane was with them?After all, Rahane is not a one-season wonder. He had been earmarked as the next big thing from Mumbai's batting stables after his first season in domestic cricket in 2007. Dubbed as a player suited only for the longer format, he was given just 10 games in the first two seasons by MI and did not make the cut for their final squad in the third season.
His coaches, though, are not surprised that Rahane has gone on to become IPL’s hottest property after his confidence was boosted by the Rajasthan Royals.
Rahane’s story is not just about a team management’s misjudgement. It also shows how not much importance is being given to local connect in what is a city-based league.
Rahane is just one example. His story is being repeated in the MI ranks in the form of Suryakumar Yadav, feel his coaches. Agreed he has attitude problems, but here is a player who has underlined his potential with loads of runs in his debut first-class season, and his game is suited to Twenty20 cricket. Add to it, he’s a Mumbai boy. But, like his senior, Rahane, it hasn’t won him any favours with MI.
It was for a reason that the IPL think-tank laid a lot of emphasis on building local talent when the event was conceived in late 2007. The icons of Indian cricket were made captains of their city teams.
Rahul Dravid went to Bangalore, Sachin Tendulkar to Mumbai, Virender Sehwag to Delhi, Yuvraj Singh to Punjab, VVS Laxman to Deccan Chargers and Sourav Ganguly to Kolkata Knight Riders.
But somewhere down the road, the focus has been lost. Except for Chennai Super Kings, the other teams have shown an unwillingness to expend energy in trying to promote local talent in their teams. For most of them, it’s just about fielding the best XI and hoping that success will automatically ensure fan connect.
Otherwise, how do you explain some of Mumbai’s best players plying their trade outside, which is also the case with Delhi and other franchises.
Among Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy players in the IPL, Rahane and Ankeet Chavan are with Rajasthan Royals, Abhishek Nayar is with Kings XI Punjab, Iqbal Abdulla is with Kolkata Knight Riders and skipper Ajit Agarkar is with Delhi. Only Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma are regulars in the MI playing XI.
Sharing the feelings of the Mumbai cricket fraternity, a young pace bowler who was with MI for the first three seasons before being off-loaded, says: “Where are the Mumbai boys in the team? No one looks after the interest of the local players.”
They don’t mind being made to sit out for genuinely good players like Ambati Rayudu, but cannot understand when an average player is persisted with, ahead of them. “They kept on playing someone like R Sathish for so many seasons. Was he better than our Mumbai players?” he asks.
In Delhi, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Mithun Manhas, Rajat Bhatia, Ashish Nehra and Ishant Sharma are plying their trade for other teams. Daredevils had the option of retaining Gambhir for the fourth and fifth seasons when the rule allowed a team to retain four players.
That Royal Challengers Bangalore didn’t even bid for Rahul Dravid in the new auction says all about what franchisees feel about local connect. And Knight Riders had the same enthusiasm for Sourav Ganguly, who went unsold in the 2011 auction.
Dravid was so hurt by the snub that he reportedly refused to acknowledge franchisee boss Siddarth Mallya when the two came face to face soon afterwards.
Given the talent in these cricket centres, other teams are anyway looking to poach.
Given Suryakumar Yadav’s impact this season and the lack of opportunities in MI, he’s another player ripe for poaching, observes a senior official of an IPL team.
“Every player is eager to play; when they don’t get chances, they move. It’s what happened with Rahane, and if Yadav is not played, he would move too.”
A senior Mumbai coach can see the Rahane script replaying in Yadav’s case. “Ideally, Yadav should be guaranteed at least five chances. If he fails, then fine, drop him. But, not trying him is strange.”
“Rahane hardly got a chance in Mumbai. The same player has gone to another team and has done so well that he will establish his place in the Indian team based on his IPL performance,” the coach observes. “It’s also a commentary on the assessment of the players by the MI staff.”
A senior member of an IPL team, who are among the leading pack now, says local connect is important for the franchisees.
“The catchment area rule at the start of the league was meant for this purpose. But some teams were not happy with their areas, like a southern team had Goa and Services. They felt a team like Delhi, with Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh as their catchment areas, had an advantage. Hence, the rule was scrapped after the first year.
“It’s how we (Indian cricket board) function: We make the rule and break the rule.”
“There was the rule about having four under-22 players. It has also been scrapped. There are no rules for local players now.”
Foreign support staff
The support staff department of most teams is filled with foreigners, who naturally don’t have much idea about local talent.
Even the Indian members of the support staff are mostly from other states and hence there is no one to back regional talent.
Only Chennai Super Kings have shown the emotional attachment and strong bonding with the local players, and the results are showing. Two-times IPL winners and once runners-up, they have also won a Champions League title.
It raises the point: Big names do not necessarily make great teams, it’s the combination which does.
“Someone like Badrinath is not a great T20 player, but CSK did all they could to get him in the auction. It has won them Badrinath’s loyalty for life,” said the senior Mumbai coach.
Not many are surprised that CSK have carved the best record in the short history of the T20 leagues. And, the contribution of their local players has been as invaluable as that of the international stars. Maybe, there’s a lesson in it.