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BCCI taking First-Class cricket more seriously is good news for the game 

When I was growing up, there was something sacred about the National championships.

My father took me to my first Ranji Trophy match, and although he is no longer with us, the memory lingers at Ranji games today. Especially of the times I held his hand as we walked into the ground. Posthumous bonding you might call it.

That match was at the Central College grounds — the Karnataka Cricket Association Stadium was yet to be built — and we sat in the temporary stands. There was a lot of action off the field too, much of it enjoyable, some of it avoidable, but all of it inevitable in a near-packed stadium.

Natural follow-up

The Duleep Trophy felt like the natural follow-up since the Ranji was played zone-wise with first one, and later two teams making it to the knockout. I remember cheering on Central Zone in the final when, thanks to a genius named Salim Durrani, they beat West to win the title.

The match was scheduled to be played in Bengaluru because officials thought that South and West would be the teams playing. Durrani ruined their plans. But there was a crowd still, most of us cheering for Central because of Durrani. He didn’t disappoint, claiming nine wickets and scoring a near-century in the second innings to see his side home against a powerful West Zone.

By restoring the Duleep Trophy to its original format as a zonal tournament, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has woken up to the folly, nay, silliness of their ways.

Random teams named after the colours of the rainbow battling it out, as in recent years, is no way to honour a player. Duleep was an Indian who never played for India (he was advised not to by his uncle Ranji who wanted the younger man to play for England like he himself had done), but was an important figure in the game.

It is ironic that India’s two top domestic first-class tournaments are named after cricketers who didn’t play for India, while a third, the Irani Cup honours an official of the BCCI, and a benefactor of the game.

Laudable

The decision to restore the significance of first class cricket by the BCCI has to be lauded because the longer game was becoming subservient to the shorter formats. With India discovering Test players in their T20 tournaments like the IPL — Jasprit Bumrah being the best example — the first class game needed to be given greater importance if it were not to be flattened to irrelevancy.

Most men (and some women) of my age have fond childhood memories of the First Class game in India. The atmosphere was relaxed. Players spent time with fans, and over the course of the match often kept a running conversation going with them. It was the sort of relationship the IPL envisaged, but never managed to sustain.

Playing at neutral venues in recent years severed that connect, but if the matches are played on a home-and-away basis, it could return. This was how the tournament was played till recently, and it is the best way. I can’t imagine my father taking me to a match in Bengaluru that didn’t involve Karnataka.

Sport is not just about winning and losing; it is about creating lasting memories, about measuring one’s life with something more than coffee spoons.

Spectator comfort

Frankly, for that to happen, the BCCI must focus on spectator comfort at our stadiums. The Ranji has to be marketed as an outing for the family, which means that seats must be comfortable, food readily available, toilets clean and perhaps even side attractions like museums, libraries, merchandising stores available. Today’s audiences are not like those of the past, willing to put up with any inconvenience. They have other options.

The decision to have separate tournaments for the Elite and Plate divisions (with promotions and relegations) makes sense when you consider the huge disparity in the ability of the teams. A debutant making a triple hundred against Mizoram and Jharkhand running up a lead of over 1000 runs against Nagaland last season were indications enough.

The changes will not see a rush for Ranji tickets. But they indicate that the BCCI, long criticised for its focus on money and television deals, is suggesting that it takes its premier first class tournaments seriously.

The next step is to ensure that the country’s top players participate in the Ranji and Duleep Trophies when available. That’s possible now that a system of rotation for international matches is in place. It has long seemed incongruous to me that the country’s most successful batter Sachin Tendulkar never played the most successful bowler Anil Kumble in a Ranji match.

My father would have loved the new First-Class season for what it promises. Only this time he would need to hold my hand instead.


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Printable version | Aug 10, 2022 12:33:29 am | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/cricket/bcci-taking-first-class-cricket-more-seriously-is-good-news-for-the-game/article65749999.ece