For a generation that seems to be immersed in the brevity of the format that predominates India's cricketing narrative off-late, the Twenty20 - the Ranji Trophy might come across as a product not worth consuming - unattractive, stale, ho-hum and perhaps static. It comes across as a theatre sans the absurd cacophony, set at times in an ambience where the very charm lies in the tranquility of proceedings.
There's a genuine sense of modesty as far as the Ranji is concerned, a tournament that comes stripped of the exhibitionist facade that Indian cricket has tended to put in the last five years or so. In a sense, this is an entirely different world - quite lonely, in fact - a world where greed doesn't equal more money or bizarre kamikaze valuations, but equals runs or wickets with that eternal hope of visibility, or that single-minded aspiration of making it to the big-time.
There's so much to love about the Ranji Trophy, despite it's oft stated deficiencies (the standards, the pitches, the points system or even the format). As a matter of fact, Ranji has a pace of its own, which I often describe as unspoiled inertia. It's all slow, no action, no theatrics, nothing. And trust me, no entertainment.
On a typical flat wicket, medium pacer ploughs outside off-stump all day, glued with eternal hope of an edge that may never come, the batsman as stubborn as ever, plays it back, the bowler picks the ball again and drags himself to the bowling mark - all in one go. Even when he gets the wicket he's looking for, celebrations are scant, out comes the next batsman and back to routine. For the romantic, it's akin to agriculture yet competitive - the joy of watching a farmer till his land all day, coming back next morning, same old, same old. In its own way, it's repetition at its perfect best.
I often wonder what that lad at long-on or long-off, or even deep-square leg for that matter must be thinking about, walking in every ball, and slowly walking back to his position after the shot is played, head stooped down in great focus.
There are times when he's embarrassingly caught yawning on the field, or ever so engrossed in an attempt at day-dream that he can't quite get what his team-mates are trying to tell him, his body language, pretty much a give away. I often wonder what this tournament means to the cricketer, barring of course, that underlying desire to represent the country one day. But what about those, who haven't even come close to being as lucky, say a Sony Cheruvathur or a Timir Chanda or well past their use-by date, like Mohammad Kaif or Hrishikesh Kanitkar?
What does it feel like waking up at 7 in the morning, reporting to a ground a few kilometers away, taking the field knowing that you have no chance of representing the country (again)?
The answer, as far as I know it (through interaction with several cricketers) is simple - that unswerving desire to compete and that unquenched thirst for success. The Ranji Trophy, gives them a shot at glory, a redemption of sorts, a sublimation from a world they could never make their own - international cricket. For some, it might well be an escape, for others, a familiar territory, but as easy as I might make the Ranji level sound, survivors are few, some outlive its relevance and others make oblivion look a lot closer than normal.
Growing up in Mumbai, the Ranji Trophy played a seminal role in my cricketing upbringing - the city's cricketing culture - so prosperous and substantial, that it was impossible to bypass our heroes. These legends, often lionised by the city's cricketing intelligentsia and the public at large, were mainly anonymous (in today's context), but their achievements, ever so enormous, were ingrained in our consciousness.
We'd be frequently reminded of the invincible Bombay team (1958-59 to 1972-73) - the superiority that the city's cricketing heroes held over India's cricketing scene, of the decline where they fell apart sometime in the 80s.
Our cricketing vocabulary derived from backyard banters from the the very basic unit of Mumbai cricket i.e. the maidans ranged from khadoos, to the patang udav, popatwadi and komti so on. There were lectures on what it meant to wear the Mumbai cap, with the ever so popular anecdote of "It's tougher to make it to the Mumbai Ranji Team than to the Indian team" thrown somewhere in between.
Then, while Mumbai established themselves as the dadas of cricket, quite naturally, there were bound to be rivalries in place. The ones against Karnataka, Delhi were fiercely contested and the most popular one, against state-rivals Maharashtra - as the late journalist Pradeep Vijaykar called, "the battle of the roses". Such was the institutional influence that the Ranji Trophy had in our heads, that by the time I got to covering and writing cricket, it became a critical part of how I saw myself as a writer.
In a more significant way, as a cricket journalist in India, there's no better way to learn about the finer, more nuanced aspects of the game than at a Ranji match. At the very least, it's unchanging atmosphere lends itself quite seamlessly for enriching conversations about the game in itself. For those intrigued by the grapevine that dominates the BCCI and it's politics, you get plenty of those in these games.
Journalists, who quite senior in the the hierarchy, at times even worshipped as in institution somehow assume the role of a story-teller or even the lecturer, with the younger folks, paying due attention to the tales that get spun. For the attentive, it's quite a source for anecdotes, for the bored, it's just another telling off from a journalist. Either way, rest assured, it's fun. But I reckon, if ever there was a finishing school of sorts, for cricket journalists, especially with tactical knowledge as a module - it is domestic cricket.
There's no better place to learn your tactics, which I believe is one of the more ignored aspects of cricket-writing today, lost perhaps for the results and the numbers that seem eye-catching. They can be utterly confounding and cryptic at times, but therein lies the challenge of sorting out - the puzzle i.e. the very reasoning behind the captain employing those tactics and also, the context in which they're introduced. If I could resort to a little reference to role-playing, as a journalist, you become the captain and try figure things out, scribble a few points on your notepad and learn.
That's how important the tournament is for an upcoming cricket journalist and his development, as much as it enables a cricketer's progress. As a writer, the scope of the Ranji narrative is not just challenging, but a compelling motif waiting to be explored.
The disappointment today has been the way the fan has somehow tended to dispense the very concept of the Ranji Trophy - either he's too occupied with his own business or just apathetic about the tournament itself. Or, at the risk of speculating, his affiliations have grown out of these state teams to the IPL franchises, due to lack of interest or worse, lack of a connect.
The logic for a Ranji fan today isn't so much based on what he gets to watch i.e. cricket, but who he gets to watch i.e. international cricketers vis-a-vis, say, not so known players. Trust me, there's nothing better than spending your weekend at a cricket ground, watching a narrative unfold, however painstaking or breathtaking it might sound, given that this tournament has a space for both, the former more than the latter, though. The diehards will always find some time to invest in following his/her team, but it's still not adequate enough.
The idea of the Ranji Trophy, to an extent was to bring about strong affiliations between the fan and his state/city side. The national narrative took over after the 1983 World Cup, but somehow, his involvement has only mellowed down. Of course, to an extent, the BCCI is to blame - as far as marketing the Ranji is concerned. Commercially speaking, it's nowhere close to everything the IPL represents, no corporates involved, yet, it deserves a better deal as far as the board is concerned.
The scheduling, as demanding as it might sound for the players, has improved as far as the fan is concerned - with most of the matches having Day 2 and Day 3 slotted for the weekend, which is what should draw a lot of people.
Having said that, there is slight hope of a greater involvement from fans, given that the internet in general and social media in particular has taken to the Ranji Trophy quite seriously. There's a refreshing sense of curiousity amongst otherwise apathetic, the often India-centric cricket fans about their respective teams, prompted by the concept of crowdsourcing of these scores.
A few dedicated fans of the tournament, with time on their side, visit these grounds and end up tweeting scores, or posting Facebook updates about the games being played. It started out as a noble experiment, and today, there's a great deal of following I observe - at least on the internet, if not at the grounds. In a faint little way, this tournament deserves a certain sense of initiative from the fan, for it is more important than we're told by our media and the BCCI. It deserves a greater patronage from those who claim to love everything about Indian cricket.
Make no mistake, the Ranji Trophy isn't quite dying the tiger's death we're sometimes prone to casually speculating about. Indian cricket, unfortunately or otherwise is at a stage where the tournament has underscored its importance over that slam-whack-bang-theatrics we've come to love these days, and the future of the cricketing discourse, however bleak or great it might appear, rests on the relevance of the Ranji Trophy.
As I quietly sit on a wintery Delhi morning, kicking myself for missing out on a Delhi vs UP tie at Ghaziabad, I wonder if the pride in wearing the Mumbai Ranji cap will be the "in thing" again. I wonder if the very charm of the tournament that underlines the birth of a cricketer, his journey from boyhood to manhood, will prove seductive enough for him to immerse himself. I end this piece with that a sense of optimism, that playing the tournament is as much about scoring runs and taking wickets, as it is about enriching the tradition that has come to underline Indian cricket through several decades - that awesome sense of pride in representing one's state and importantly, the lure of the ultimate glory in Indian cricket i.e. winning the Ranji Trophy itself.