The Ranji Trophy no longer holds the same place in Indian cricket that it once did. With matches being played in empty stadiums, and only a handful broadcast on national television and, most importantly, the onslaught of the IPL, it may not be surprising that many an Indian cricket fan is oblivious to the fact that the final of India’s 'premier' domestic cricket competition is being played in Nagpur. Or that last year’s shock champions Vidarbha are defending their title against a resurgent Saurashtra, who have Team India's Mr Dependable Cheteshwar Pujara in their batting ranks.
But despite its decline in recent times, the Ranji Trophy boasts a rich history, having nourished Indian cricket for 85 years. And with another season drawing to a close, here is a look at the octogenarian tournament.
What’s in a name?
The Ranji Trophy was the brainchild of the Board of Control for Cricket in India founder A.S. De Mello. He proposed the idea for a national cricket championship, along with a drawing of the trophy—a Grecian urn that is in use to this day—at a meeting of the BCCI held in Shimla in July 1934. Initially named The Cricket Championship of India, the then Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupendra Singh, promptly agreed to finance the trophy and suggested that it be named after the legendary Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja, Maharaja of Nawanagar, popularly known as ‘Ranji’, who had passed away the previous year. And the Ranji Trophy came into being.
Ranjitsinhji was the first Indian cricketer to have played international cricket. Ironically, he played all his cricket in England representing Cambridge University, Sussex and the England cricket team. A prolific run-getter, he was considered one of the greats of his era and is widely credited with 'inventing' the leg-glance shot. Though he returned to India, he refused an offer to captain the Indian team in 1911 and was criticised for not contributing enough towards the growth of the game in his home country. However, he took keen interest in coaching his nephew Duleepsinhji who emulated his uncle, going on to play for England and having a domestic cricket competition in India, the Duleep Trophy, named after him.
Short first season, shorter first match (1934-35)
In the inaugural Ranji Trophy match, Madras took on Mysore at the Chepauk Ground. Madras thrashed the visitors by an innings and 23 runs, with the game finishing five minutes before the close of play on the first day itself. The match remains the only one in the history of the Ranji Trophy to have concluded on the first day.
Only 15 teams contested the first season that saw just 13 games with only three producing results. Bombay, riding on an all-round performance from Vijay Merchant, beat Northern India in the final.
The ever-evolving format
The format for the tournament remained more or less unchanged until 2001, with the teams grouped into geographic zones—north, south, east, west and central—and the winners of each zone playing each other on a knockout basis to determine the winner.
From the 2002-03 season, the zonal system was replaced by the two-tier system, with the elite group comprising the best 15 teams and the remaining teams fighting it out in the plate group. The top teams from the plate group advanced to the elite group, while those finishing at the bottom of the elite group were relegated. This format has been tweaked numerous times over the past few years with the different groups expanded, and more teams being given a direct opportunity to win the trophy. The 2018-19 season saw nine teams make their Ranji Trophy debut and the formation of a fourth group in addition to the three in existence. But, with criticism pouring in from certain states, the format looks like it might be revamped yet again!
One state, three teams
At 85, the Ranji Trophy is almost a decade and a half older than India. As a result, many teams were formed to represent regions that later became single states. Maharashtra, for example, has three teams—Maharashtra, Mumbai and Vidarbha. Mumbai or Bombay, as it was formerly known, was the epicentre for cricket in India and had arguably the best team in the country. Vidarbha, with its base in Nagpur, had been a separate state under the British and, hence, had its own team. And the rest of the state was represented by the Maharashtra team which played from Pune, the capital of the ruling Peshwas. Gujarat, too, has three teams. Saurashtra and Baroda were princely states where the Maharajas took a keen interest in cricket and had their own teams. The rest of the state is represented by the Gujarat team.
On the other hand, many teams such as the Travancore-Cochin team and southern and northern Punjab were superseded by their respective state teams post Independence.
Railways and Services
During the recently concluded India-Australia test series, Aussie commentator Kerry O’ Keefe came under fire when he joked that debutant Mayank Agarwal’s triple century had come against the railways canteen staff. While Agarwal let his bat do the talking, it is quite unusual that the railways has a team in the national domestic cricket league. But the Ranji Trophy is no ordinary cricket tournament, and in addition to the various regional teams and the Railways, the armed services, too, field a team under the ‘Services’ banner. While the Railways team, made up of those employed by the railways, has made its mark winning the tournament twice, the Services have not enjoyed much success over the years. Most of their wins have come against Jammu and Kashmir, and, in the 2009-10 season, the team was disqualified from the tournament for refusing to play Jammu and Kashmir at Srinagar.
Mumbai is the Mecca of Cricket in India. The Ranji Trophy’s predecessor—the Bombay Quadrangular—was integral to the city’s cricketing lore. The Mumbai team has dominated the Ranji Trophy to the extent that the tournament has almost become synonymous with the city. Along with the win in the inaugural season in 1934, Mumbai have won the tournament a record 41 times. Karnataka are a distant second with just eight titles. Mumbai enjoyed a near-invincible run from 1953 to 1977, winning the title 21 of 24 times, which included a 15-year unbeaten streak as reigning champions. Though their dominance has declined over the past decade, Mumbai are still a force to reckon with, having won the trophy in the 2015-16 season. In 2017, Mumbai became the first team in the tournament’s history to play 500 matches, yet another testament to their contribution to the Ranji Trophy and Indian cricket.
It’s a batsman’s game
India have historically been known for their batting prowess, having continuously produced legends like Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and now Virat Kohli. While this trend may be because of several reasons, a certain rule in the Ranji Trophy has definitely played its part.
The Ranji Trophy’s point system awards three points to the team that takes the lead in the first innings. This is quite substantial considering an outright win earns the team just six points. So, with most games ending in draws, the team that takes the first-innings lead, walks away with the spoils despite the draw. Moreover, in the knockout stages, the team with the first-innings lead is declared the winner in case of a draw. This rule has incentivised batting for long periods and the tournament has witnessed countless instances where teams have batted the opposition out of contention.
However, the first-innings lead rule has faced criticism in recent times as it has resulted in many teams merely batting on and on instead of going for a win.
Unlike other domestic sports tournaments in the country where players can only represent their home states, the Ranji Trophy has always allowed players to switch teams. While some players have left their home teams to prolong their careers, others have left in search of more playing time. These players have often made significant contributions to their adopted teams.
Wasim Jaffer, the highest scorer in the competition’s history, moved from Mumbai to neighbouring Vidarbha and has been the key to their success. Former Indian opener Virender Sehwag started his career at Delhi, and retired playing for Haryana. At the beginning of the ongoing season, Irfan Pathan moved from Baroda to Jammu and Kashmir.
Every cricket coach will tell you that the way to the Indian team is by performing consistently in the Ranji Trophy. But, over the years, there have been many unlucky players who have done everything they could, season after season, with no acknowledgement from the selectors.
Rajinder Goel, the highest wicket-taker in Ranji Trophy’s history never got to represent India. Amol Muzumdar was another player who would consider himself unlucky. He was the second-highest run-scorer in Ranji Trophy history, but happened to be part of an era with Tendulkar, Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. Over the past few years, Jalaj Saxena has stood out with both bat and ball and even switched teams in an effort to impress selectors. But with Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya already filling the all-rounder spot, he may end up as yet another great player who never played for India.
But, in a country like India, where cricket is the unofficial religion, and everybody wants to play for the national team, just being great is often not enough.
Lifting the trophy NOT the ‘final test’
Winning the Ranji Trophy is no easy task. The season is long and hard with no walkovers. But, winning the prestigious trophy is not the final frontier. The winning team competes with the best players from the remaining teams, who play as the ‘Rest of India’. The winner walks away with the Irani Cup. The Irani Cup was started in 1959 to commemorate 25 years of the Ranji Trophy and the victory is twice sweet if the Ranji winners can get the better of the best from the rest. At the same time, a call-up to the Rest of India team is a huge achievement and a sign that the selectors like what they see.