Happy days are here again. After living in a world of uncertainty for nearly two years as to when the next Ranji Trophy season would begin came the glad news on Friday when Jay Shah, the honorary secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), wrote to all the affiliated units of the Board: “the decks have been cleared and we are set to conduct the Ranji Trophy 2021-22 season shortly”.
Many households that depended on the conduct of Ranji Trophy – and these include not only the players but also the other vital cogs that are a part of this premier domestic tournament – the umpires, match referees, scorers, coaches, etc. – have something to look forward to.
Batters who were uncertain as to when they would middle the cricket ball, or bowlers who were itching to send down that red cherry and do wonders against batters in a competitive match can look forward positively and begin preparations in earnest. Families who were monetarily impacted by the non-conduct of the 2020-21 Ranji Trophy can now heave a sigh of relief.
And, Saurashtra, who are the defending champions of Ranji Trophy, having beaten Bengal in the final on first innings lead, can actually have a go at defending the title rather than be called just the reigning champions.
Jaydev Unadkat, captain of the defending champions, was elated when the news of Ranji Trophy 2021-22 to be held in two phases – the league stage soon (read it as before IPL 2022) and the knock-outs in June – came on Friday. The 30-year-old left-arm pacer who took 67 wickets to top the bowling charts while leading his team to title victory in 2019-20, told news18.com on Friday: “I am definitely very very excited. I was hoping that the Ranji Trophy does take place and I was practicing with the red ball all this while when we had this gap. My whole game revolves around the red-ball format. I form everything around the skills that I have with the red ball. I am that much more looking forward to Ranji Trophy to begin.”
Speaking on behalf of his team, Unadkat added: “All of us were looking forward to this. The talk last time was that ‘let’s all be practicing. Whenever this comes around, we should be ready to go from ball one’. This is something that we will look forward to doing, having a camp to start the preparations that will help us to defend the title, which we have been waiting for two years now.”
Being in that position to experience what it means to be the defending champions, Unadkat said his team is keen to go out there and actually defend the title. “To be the defending champions is a great feeling. All this while, we have been looking at the replays (of our win). I have been doing that and I still love to do it whenever I get a chance. It is a great feeling. We are looking to defend the title rather than just be the defending champions. Hopefully, we will put up a good show.”
Unadkat said that nothing much has changed within the team since it lifted the title on March 13, 2020 in Rajkot. “As defending champions, two years is a long time. We will start fresh, for sure. The core of the team remains the same. Obviously, we will miss Avi Barot, who unfortunately passed away (in October 2021 due to cardiac arrest). He was an established player in the side and will be missed. We are that much settled in terms of the experience we have. We will look to start fresh. Nothing comes for granted after two years. Same things remain for us as defending champions.”
Karnataka’s batting mainstay, Karun Nair, and Vidarbha captain, Faiz Fazal, thanked the BCCI for its efforts in being able to go ahead with the conduct of Ranji Trophy in these pandemic times.
Nair said to this website from Bengaluru: “It will be amazing. A lot of us cricketers are waiting for this opportunity to play red-ball cricket, which we have not been having for almost two years. It is a great opportunity for everyone and it is something a lot of the cricketers are looking forward to.”
Asked if having a break between the league phase and the knock-outs make a difference to the team’s fortunes and the way a team prepared, the 30-year-old Nair, India’s only second Test triple centurion after Virender Sehwag, said: “Most players like me are really happy first of all that Ranji Trophy is happening. We get some sort of cricket, and there is some red-ball cricket happening. At this moment, we are not even thinking about how it (the gap before the knock-outs) would be. It is an amazing effort by the BCCI to make it happen. I am really glad with this decision.”
The right-handed batsman, Nair, who has been blessed with a baby boy three weeks ago, looks forward to resuming his skills training as he has been maintaining his fitness while at home during the lockdown.
For the captain of two-time Ranji Trophy-winning side, Vidarbha, Fazal, it is back to work. “Happy days are here again,” the 36-year-old left-handed opening batsman said from Nagpur. “I am really delighted, really happy that the premier tournament of our country is coming back. I thank the BCCI for taking this effort and conducting it. I am just waiting for the first match to start.”
A senior BCCI umpire echoed the sentiments of many of those who perform crucial roles in the conduct of the match from backstage. He said without preferring to be named: “From the match officials’ perspective, I think it is very important to be a part of the multi-day format, especially red-ball cricket. As much as it tests the skills and abilities of the players, it also tests the skills and abilities of the umpires. During the testing times in the last two years, there were a handful of white-ball games for officials like Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. But at the end of the day, for match officials, being out in the sun for four days and testing them out there, it is certainly a welcoming decision and a great move by the BCCI to organise the premier domestic tournament as the Ranji Trophy and it will certainly be a great help for all concerned.”
Domestic cricket stalwart, Amol Muzumdar, was a television commentator and also conducted the post-match presentation of the final when Ranji Trophy was last held. After that, the whole world was hit by Covid. Muzumdar will resume his association with the Ranji Trophy, this time as the coach of 41-time titlists Mumbai.
“I welcome the decision of the BCCI. All said and done, you can have the glamour and glitter in international cricket but in domestic cricket, you really have to put your mind to it. I strongly feel about it. I am glad that the BCCI thought about conducting the Ranji Trophy. Obviously, there are challenges. We live in unprecedented times and there will be challenges. I am glad it is taking the efforts and rearranging Ranji Trophy,” said Muzumdar, who held the record for the highest score in a Ranji Trophy debut, 260 (in 1993-94), for two-and-a-half decades before it was broken by Madhya Pradesh’s Ajay Rohera (267 not out in 2018-19).
The 47-year-old Muzumdar added: “It (the pandemic) is all new. It is not something that we are used to. Certain things like the restrictions, Covid protocols are all new. I am sure we would end up having a big smile on our faces when we enter the ground. Ultimately it is all about getting on to the ground. Am sure the players are all looking forward to it to resume.”
One of them who is itching to middle the ball and be happy about it is Mumbai middle-order batsman, Siddhesh Lad.
The 29-year-old right-handed batsman who has bailed Mumbai out of precarious situations in the past with his fighting knocks, said: “When I middle the ball, it gives me a lot of pleasure from inside. If I don’t play cricket for a few days, I don’t feel good within myself.”
Lad, who has played in 61 first-class matches since his debut in 2013-14, said that playing in Ranji Trophy was also important for players to look at corporate jobs.
“Everyone is keen on having the Ranji Trophy. It matters a lot because of financial needs also. Over the last two years, there was no exposure for domestic players to showcase their talent unless they were a part of the IPL or the Indian team. It is very important for the Ranji Trophy to take place. Many players get jobs when they represent their States. Corporate teams have the criteria that if one wants a job, he should have played a certain amount of Ranji Trophy matches. Taking these things into consideration, it is very important for people like us to have the Ranji Trophy. Everyone is happy with the news of Ranji Trophy resuming soon. The preparations will start soon,” said Lad, who is the son of Dinesh Lad, the childhood coaches of Rohit Sharma and Shardul Thakur among many other first-class cricketers.
Lad figured in IPL teams for six seasons and missed out last year. That’s when he went to play club cricket in England to stay in touch with the sport that he, like many others in the country, loves the most.
Lad said: “Because of Covid, there was nothing much to do other than training in the gym and preparing myself mentally. I feel that the most important thing for me is to continue playing cricket. That is the reason I went to the UK last year. It was important to be in touch with cricket. It keeps me to be mentally happy. I love playing cricket.”
Lad signed up for Chorley, a club in Lancashire that plays in the Northern League Premier Division. “It was my first time in England. I could not go to England earlier as I was with the IPL team for six seasons. I wanted to experience playing in England, its cold conditions, their challenging pitches because of rain. Last year was the right time for me to go and experience cricket in the UK. I enjoyed my cricket for five months as a professional. I had a lot of responsibility as I was the main player of the team. I learned a lot in the UK.”
Lad is looking forward to using all his experience and the learnings from the UK as Mumbai seek to find their ways of winning Ranji Trophy again.
For now, like Shah ended his letter to the affiliated units: “Let the preparations begin!”