With the ‘blue billion’ training their eyes on Rahul Dravid’s men in South Africa, India’s most important cricket competition is getting off to a quiet start. The 73rd edition of the Ranji Trophy begins on Friday, with seven Elite and six Plate Division matches taking off in various parts of the country.
The biggest domestic first-class competition in the world, featuring 27 teams in two divisions (the English County Championship is second with 18 teams), is a mammoth operation — 85 matches in 92 days.
The stakes are not high in terms of monetary rewards, but that has never discouraged the players from performing to the best of their abilities. The battle for the biggest prize in Indian cricket is going to be crucial this season because of a variety of reasons.
There can be openings for middle-order batsmen and fast bowlers when the Test squad for South Africa is picked, and the search for the right combination for the World Cup is not over yet. Also, the selectors must start thinking now about what happens after that.
Not all those who figure centrally in the Indian team’s plans at the moment are going to be around this time next year and the selection committee chairman Dilip Vengsarkar has shown a lot of interest in looking out for the possible replacements. And this is the right time for the aspirants to score those runs and take those wickets.
Apart from providing players a chance to earn their tickets to international cricket, the Ranji Trophy has been interesting in the recent years for another reason. It is no more the bastion of a few teams, after the emergence of good players from teams like Baroda, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, places with unknown cricketing pedigree.
Proof of this competition becoming a national championship in the true sense of the word lies in the list of winners over the last six years: Uttar Pradesh and Railways won their maiden crowns, while Baroda won it for the first time in nearly 50 years in that period.
Apart from increasing the options for the selectors, the new winners prove the national character of the game.
Not many will watch these games, despite some matches being beamed live on TV; on the other had, reams will be written about what happens in South Africa, but that will not decrease the importance of the Ranji matches to those who are playing. They will still do their best because they know those who matter are watching.