Back in 1961-62, followers of cricket in India were gifted the Duleep Trophy. There was already the Ranji Trophy, the premier first-class competition, and then we had an additional one, smaller than the Ranji, like the bigger one’s nephew, played among zones rather than states.
An English game not yet quite Indian, as it would come to be in time, cricket’s two main tournaments in the newly free country came to be named after two men of royalty, two men who showcased incredible batsmanship in their time, but also two men who never really played for, or in, India. Although Kumar Shri ‘Mr Smith’ Duleepsinhji did play in the Bombay Quadrangular upon his return home from England, the country he represented in Test cricket like his more famous uncle, the Jamsaheb of Nawanagar, Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji.
It probably made sense at the time to name the country’s two biggest first-class competitions after two Indian men who had made such a name for themselves in England.
Should it continue to be so? Should not the likes of, say, CK Nayudu and Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad be honoured thus in place of the Sinhjis? Or even stalwarts of later vintage – the great spinners, or Sunil Gavaskar or Kapil Dev? As it is, Nayudu, Hazare and Mankad do have tournaments named after them, all lesser competitions.
Anyway, that question can wait – at the moment, the Duleep Trophy is struggling for relevance and even its existence. In the 2017-18 domestic calendar released by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the Duleep Trophy doesn’t figure at all.
The tournament ran fine till 1993-94, with the five zonal teams contesting it on a knockout basis. Then it became a league event. Then, in 2002-03, out went the zones and we had Elite A, Elite B, Elite C, Plate A and Plate B in the mix. One season later, the zones came back and an overseas team was added. The tinkering continued and then, in 2015-16, it didn’t take place at all. It came back in 2016-17, but as a pink-ball, day-night competition between three teams – Red, Blue and Green, with the best players from the country picked up and distributed among the three.
With the BCCI looking at giving the domestic calendar relevance, the Duleep Trophy was scrapped in 2015-16 because the feeling was that the players needed to knock on the doors of the selectors for the World Twenty20 2016. Better play T20 tournaments and avoid days’ cricket. The following season, with Anurag Thakur and various other BCCI bigwigs hoping to bring day-night Test cricket to India, the pink-ball experiment was carried out. This time, the unofficial word from the BCCI is that it doesn’t make sense to host the tournament right away. It would be better to have it before the start of the next season of international cricket – maybe next September, so that players can get their long-format touch back, and impress whoever they need to, before the Test season.
So where does the Duleep really stand in the scheme of things? An old, historic tournament is being given the short shrift – but perhaps that’s fine. Cricket has evolved far too much – sometimes in the right direction and sometimes not – to shed tears over a tournament that has seemingly run its course and is just not fitting in any more. But while the powers-that-be in Indian cricket realise this, they seem to be wary of saying it out loud, of scrapping the Duleep Trophy altogether.
See, it’s like this. The Ranji exists more or less as it should, and remains the port of call when it comes to first-class cricket for Indian domestic players. And we have recently got a far more robust and well-planned India A structure, which wasn’t the case till even a couple of seasons ago.
With Rahul Dravid at the helm and a team of qualified coaches and support staff in charge, the India A programme has been one of the big success stories in Indian cricket in recent times. If the Duleep separated the wheat from the chaff and brought the best domestic first-class players together for a hitout, as opposed to the much wider-spread Ranji, we have India A tours doing that now. Sure, the number of players involved is lower, but that just focuses the process.
Where does the Duleep fit in then?
It doesn’t, is my suggestion. Another entity has stepped into its shoes – and is doing the job better, with less baggage.
Yet I do have one major reservation about this: The re-re-restructured Ranji Trophy as it is for the 2017-18 season. Six group games among 28 teams. One extra game for eight of those teams. One more for four of them. And the final for the two best of the lot. Assuming a pool of 20 players for each association, we will have 400 players with a maximum of six games, 80 others with seven, 40 more with eight, and 40 more with nine. The winners there will get one more first-class fixture in the form of the Irani Cup along with the Rest of India bunch. That’s it. That’s all. And then India A, typically involving a pool of around 20 players.
The Duleep Trophy has so far provided players with more first-class cricket to push their cases, yes, and also help monetarily. As we have discussed before on Wisden India, the payment for domestic cricketers needs urgent restructuring anyway. To reduce workdays even further can’t help.
The Duleep Trophy isn’t quite dead yet, possibly. But indications are that it is on its last legs. If that happens, Indian cricket may not be affected too much in terms of the bigger picture, but many Indian cricketers will be, that’s for sure. Collateral damage? Or cause for yet another rethink on the format of the Ranji Trophy so it gives players more chances to shine, and earn? Or, at least for the benefit of the cream of the crop, even more ‘A’ tours?