A team like Vidarbha winning the Ranji Trophy is not a surprise anymore

The fund-flow from the BCCI to state associations and the willingness of these associations to pay good money to experienced players of the domestic circuit means a team like Vidarbha winning the Ranji Trophy shouldn’t be seen as a surprise any longer.

cricket Updated: Jan 03, 2018 12:10 IST
Khurram Habib
Khurram Habib
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Ranji Trophy,Vidarbha cricket team,Delhi cricket team
Vidarbha players celebrate with the trophy after winning the Ranji Trophy final against Delhi by 9 wickets in Indore on Monday. (PTI)

It’s a fairytale that starts with Pritam Gandhe.

Before India pacer Umesh Yadav and Rajneesh Gurbani, who won the man-of-the-match award in the Ranji Trophy final for his six-wicket haul, Pritam Gandhe and pace bowler Prashant Vaidya were Vidarbha’s best-known players.

Gandhe stands out not just for his long stint in domestic cricket but also because he remains the only Vidarbha player to take two hat-tricks in the Ranji Trophy. Gurbani and Umesh have a hat-trick each.

The former off-spinner played 21 seasons, his career spanning generations – from when first-class domestic cricket paid a pittance, offered few facilities and careers depended on getting a job -- to the time when players started making a decent living playing domestic cricket alone.

“My first match fee was ~250 (in late 1987) and I bought a Sunny helmet with that,” recalls Gandhe, who was 17 at the time. He joined Air India when he was 19. The job ensured a regular salary, but more importantly, allowed him to move to Mumbai to play competitive cricket and make use of the city’s better cricketing infrastructure, Back then, Nagpur was still a cricketing backwater.

“In those days, Vidarbha cricketers would begin practice only a month before the Ranji season. We’d be given only two pitches for practice. The state association paid little (as match fees) and so everyone needed to have a job or some financial backing to pursue cricket. Obviously, only those with passion played the game,” says Gandhe.

Things changed when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) became flush with funds in 2004 thanks to TV rights for Indian cricket becoming a lucrative proposition. It soon began sharing its profits with local cricket bodies, which in turn started sharing their gains with domestic players. Today, domestic players and women cricketers get 13% of net income from media rights, sponsorship income, aside of main ones and distribution from world and Asian bodies. The money to these domestic players came to ~68 crore in 2015-16; ~62 crore for 2013-14 and 2014-15 while for 2016-17 it is ~80 crore.

“When I played my last Ranji game in 2008, I got about ~1.2 lakh for the match,” recalls Gandhe.

The fund-flow from BCCI to state associations plus grants to some state units for hosting IPL together runs to over ~30 crore a year.

In 2009, a state-of-the-art cricket academy came up in Nagpur. “The association now has two grounds, innumerable pitches, and indoor training facilities where players can train all year long, even in the rain. They don’t need to go to big cities. There is a dedicated fitness trainer who has the first look before letting you in,” says Gandhe, who took 340 first-class wickets in the course of his career.

A decade after Gandhe played his last Ranji match, and 14 years after BCCI became India’s richest sports body, Vidarbha won its first Ranji Trophy championship.

Breaking the monopoly

It isn’t just Vidarbha. In the last eight years, the Ranji Trophy has seen three first-time winners, breaking the stranglehold of big teams such as Mumbai, Karnataka, and even Delhi, which lost this year’s final to Vidarbha.

Rajasthan, champions in 2010 and 2011, built a state-of-the-art academy in 2006-07 envisaged by Lalit Modi, the controversial founding chairman of the Indian Premier League. Soon, cricketers such as Pankaj Singh and Ashok Menaria (former U-19 India captain) came into the limelight. Gujarat, champions in 2016-17, was another beneficiary. Its academy came up in the last decade.

Wasim Jaffer, a veteran of 21 Ranji seasons, who helped script Vidarbha’s success, says, “Now you see so many good cricket grounds in districts. Infrastructure has developed almost everywhere, which is why you’ll see small centres producing good cricketers. There were three Vidarbha players in a recent India U-19 team; there was only one from Mumbai.”

Jaffer says the Indian Premier League has helped too – not just in terms of money, but also in helping players handle pressure. “This Vidarbha team had some players who were in IPL teams and rubbed shoulders with the best, learning about pressure and match preparation,” he adds.

And then, Jaffer’s presence itself helped.

The professionals

For the last three seasons, Jaffer, an eight-time Ranji winner with Mumbai and a former India opener, has plied his skills for Vidarbha as a journeyman professional. While batting remains his major job, he is also expected to guide the young players with coach Chandrakant Pandit, another former Mumbai and India player who has emerged one of the best coaches on the domestic circuit. “Players from smaller teams have talent but need guidance. You have to tell some to tweak technique and work on their skills, some on how to handle pressure,” says Jaffer.

The era of professionals in smaller teams has gained momentum in the last decade.

Teams such as Rajasthan had even tried foreign players like Vikram Solanki and Kabir Ali in the mid-2000s under Lalilt Modi. However, Rajasthan really struck gold in 2010-11 and 2011-12 when the trio of former India opener Aakash Chopra (Delhi), Hrishikesh Kantikar (Maharashtra) and Rashmi Ranjan Parida (Orissa) came together. They shored up the batting, a relatively weak department for the team, and were the top scorers for Rajasthan in 2010-11. Chopra and Kanitkar were in Rajasthan’s top five the next season.

“The most important thing the professionals brought was experience (over 400 first-class games). Our bowling was good and they brought plenty to the batting unit,” said former India pacer (and Rajasthan player) Pankaj Singh. Chopra and Kanitkar had played international cricket too and had massive experience in domestic cricket for Delhi and Maharashtra respectively.

As associations have become richer with largesse from BCCI, they have displayed a willingness to pay good money for top professionals.

Gujarat, first-time champions in 2016-17, hired former India and UP pacer Rudra Pratap (RP) Singh, and coach Vijay Patel credits him with part of the success. “We already had Parthiv Patel guiding the batsmen. RP was like a bowling captain. He’d take the new ball and test the conditions.”

RP says, “I would test the wicket – if there was help, I’d recommend a full length, if not I’d ask them to keep it short and tight.”

RP’s major contribution came in the final against Mumbai. He told bowlers to outdo the dogged Mumbai batsmen by making them play towards cover. Gujarat captain Parthiv set the field accordingly. Mumbai lost outright.

“Professionals know about match preparation and know the winning habit,” adds RP Singh.

Vidarbha expected the same from the likes of Jaffer and former Karnataka batsman Ganesh Satish. They delivered.

‘No small teams now’

Former India all-rounder and coach Madan Lal, who played for Ranji-winning Delhi team as well as Punjab, says: “Nowadays, I’ll not call any team small. Everyone has access to facilities and is desperate to win and make a mark as players see a career in cricket. The important thing is to maintain the winning habit. I remember, during the first few matches of Bishan Singh Bedi’s captaincy of Delhi, we did not win a single match but then we began winning”.

Rajasthan, unfortunately, lost that habit after the professionals left and the association was mired in controversy over the election of Lalit Modi.

Madan Lal, a World Cup-winning all-rounder, also points out that “the top international players would usually play Ranji games back then.”

That was because the international calendar was less crowded .

Now, sometimes the so-called smaller teams are on even keel as the top sides don’t usually have the stars for key games. Delhi missed Ishant Sharma, on tour to South Africa, in the final after he had captained in the earlier games. Two other Delhi players, India captain Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan weren’t available too.

Rajasthan, unfortunately, lost that habit after the professionals left and the association was mired in controversy over the election of Lalit Modi.

First Published: Jan 03, 2018 09:18 IST