In 80 years of the Ranji Trophy, Bombay (or Mumbai) has won it 40 times leaving no doubt whatsoever as to who are the giants of the Indian domestic circuit. In fact in the first 39 years, they won it 24 times including a world record 15 in a row from 1958-59 to 1972-73.
Bombay cricket was indeed Indian cricket and eight players from the side in a touring national squad and five members in the playing eleven were par for the course during this era of dominance.
Karnataka finally dethroned them in 1973-74 and given what has happened over the last 40 years, it truly was a significant triumph. Bombay have had their phases of dominance even during this period and have won the trophy on 16 more occasions. But the trophy has also gone around and not just to heavyweights like Delhi or Karnataka. The former has registered seven triumphs in all and Karnataka six but over the years the premier national competition has also been won by Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Punjab, Railways, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Baroda and Rajasthan.
This has certainly been good for the game in India. For one thing, it is never an ideal scenario if only one team or region is dominant and secondly it means that talented players who perhaps deserve national recognition are emerging from areas that have been hitherto ''backward'' cricketwise. What is even more heartening is that some of them have hailed from small towns in these states.
MS Dhoni is easily the pre-eminent example of this having emerged from Jharkand but over the last decade or two players from Uttar Pradesh, Railways, Punjab, Bengal, Baroda and Orissa have represented the country. Some of the players who have represented the country in this period include Md Kaif, Suresh Raina, Piyush Chawla and RP Singh (UP), Sanjay Bangar and Murali Kartik (Railways), Dinesh Mongia, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Manpreet Gony (Punjab), Sourav Ganguly, Saba Karim, Manoj Tiwari and Ashok Dinda (Bengal), Nayan Mongia, Jacob Martin and Irfan and Yusuf Pathan (Baroda) and Debasish Mohanty and SS Das (Orissa).
Another encouraging factor is that the selectors have rewarded players when they do well around the domestic circuit. When Karnataka won the Ranji Trophy in 1973-74 and finished runners-up the following year, six players from the state were in the national squad that toured New Zealand and West Indies in early 1976. When Tamil Nadu won the trophy after 33 years in 1987-88 five from the state played for India within a year. And Karnataka had eight or nine representatives in the mid and late 90s when they won the Ranji Trophy three times in four years. .
A notable feature of this year’s Ranji Trophy was the publicity it received in the media. This was lacking in previous years but this time major newspapers sent their correspondents to all the knock-out matches. The greater interest was also reflected in the spectator response. There was a time when a Ranji Trophy game between heavyweights attracted crowds of anything between 15,000 and 20,000 to the venue.
Over the years as interest declined this dwindled to virtually nothing and matches being played before empty stadiums were a regular feature. This time most of the matches drew a more than reasonable response which was encouraging considering that the big names and the most popular cricketers were on tour with the Indian team.
This year’s competition which is now in its final stage with Maharashtra and Karnataka meeting in the title clash from January 29 was not without surprises. Railways, UP and Bengal qualified from group B whereas fancied teams like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Baroda did not make it to the knock out stage. Delhi was the big casualty in group A even as Karnataka, Punjab and Mumbai qualified. But the real storybook finish was in group C with Jammu & Kashmir finishing second to Maharashtra and making it to the quarterfinals for the first time.
The surprises continued in the knock out stage with Mumbai being eliminated by Maharashtra in the quarterfinal despite playing at home. Few could have in fact bargained for the final to be contested between Karnataka and Maharashtra. The former has not won the trophy since 1998-99 while the latter who are entering the final after 21 years last emerged triumphant in 1940-41.
But whatever happens in the title clash there can be little doubt that J & K were the most talked about team in this year’s competition. Given the volatile situation in the state as also the fact that J & K have not just been considered lightweights but also as whipping boys, their making the quarterfinal is straight out of the fiction books.
Even here they gave a heartening display before going down to Punjab by100 runs. Skipper Pervez Rasool who should be donning India colours ere long provided the inspiration and the cricketers played well above their potential. In scoring a hundred and taking five wickets in the Punjab second innings the 24-year-old Rasool clearly proved that he is a genuine all-rounder in the making – yes, even at international level.