This Sunday, Indian cricket’s premier domestic tournament, the Ranji Trophy, will commence across the nation at venues ranging from Rohtak to Hyderabad and Pune to Guwahati.
If hope is the overwhelming theme that defines the championship with cricketers jostling for the selectors’ attention, besides dreaming about winning the coveted trophy, this time around, pathos too will be at play during the opening round.
Sachin Tendulkar and Sitanshu Kotak are champions in their own right.
One, a colossus, who gifted us searing memories, the other a low-profile player, who made a huge contribution to Saurashtra with his batting. Tendulkar and Kotak will bow out of the Ranji Trophy after their respective games at Rohtak (against Haryana) and Rajkot (against Rajasthan). Surely the championship is as much about geniuses such as Tendulkar as it is about men like Kotak, who toil selflessly.
The Ranji Trophy though is not just about one team — defending champion Mumbai — flexing its muscle based on an ability to shine during the crunch while also nursing a weighty history of the most titles (40). The tournament is also about ‘lightweight’ squads which prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A point Rajasthan famously proved while winning the title in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
Meanwhile, fancied outfits like Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Hyderabad (now relegated to Group ‘C’), had a dull season last year and need to prove that the old fires are still burning. Karnataka, another traditionally strong State, has often sailed into the knock-outs without pushing forward.
The collective goal of wresting the trophy might bind all teams but players will also stare longingly at the India cap. A national squad, in the throes of transition and about to play against the West Indies, South Africa and New Zealand, is bound to throw up vacancies and the second string only has the Ranji Trophy to press its case.
Interestingly, the in-between generation of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh, which was expected to soften the blow when men like Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman and Anil Kumble retired, are now battling their own demons while another generation led by Virat Kohli has broken through the doors.
Yuvraj may be back in the limited-overs contests but he surely knows that his anaemic Test career needs a fillip. What Sehwag and company, and the youngsters at the other end of the spectrum, do in the Ranji Trophy will offer a pointer to Indian cricket’s future.
It is time for the games to begin though the audience will mostly consist of sports scribes, three men and a dog. Rohtak will obviously be an exception but with Tendulkar around, a crowd is bound to gather.