Will this be the season of the great Ranji revival? I am old enough to remember the days when the tournament was played to packed stadiums by full-strength teams and when the average Ranji cricketer was recognised on the streets of Bangalore. Years ago, for instance, N B Laxminarayan, a spinner who played in the same Karnataka team as Erapalli Prasanna and B S Chandrasekhar, was spotted on Commercial Street by a bunch of schoolboys. I might still have the autograph he signed for me.
Somewhere along the line - possibly after India's triumph in the 1983 World Cup, but that is only a convenient and obvious date - the national championship began to lose its sheen. When Tamil Nadu prepared to win their first title after 35 years, in 1989-90, the less than half-full stadium mocked them. Some half-a-dozen players from that squad made it to the Indian team. But not even Sachin Tendulkar is able to fill the stadiums at the major centres, which is why matches are often played, quite sensibly, at smaller venues outside the big cities.
But the Tendulkar generation - not Sachin himself, though - let down the Ranji Trophy, aided to a great extent by the cricket board's focussing its attention on matches which brought in more money and greater television ratings. The calendar was skewed, One-Day Internationals and later Twenty20 took centre stage, and the national championship became just another ritual. Internationals pulled out citing tiredness or lack of interest; it was difficult to blame them entirely for the BCCI itself didn't seem particularly fussed.
It led to a caste system - the internationals, and the Ranji heroes. The latter had, in domestic tournaments the kind of records that the former had in internationals. Amarjit Kaypee, Amol Majumdar, Rajinder Goel became huge names in Ranji cricket without getting within 22 yards of the national team.
The state of the Ranji Trophy became a topic for debate only when India did poorly abroad, in Australia, in South Africa, and more recently, in England. Then there was talk of producing Ranji stars who lacked the skill or the stomach for the next grade. Preparation of pitches suddenly became the most important topic for public debate. Why can't we produce fast bowlers? Why can't we produce batsmen who can play fast bowlers? The questions remained the same, the answers were muted. For even those asking the questions knew that every embarrassment abroad would be followed by victories at home, and all would be forgiven. It was only a matter of riding out the interim period.
Now, with new rules, a new format and presumably a new attitude, there is hope for the Ranji. Already the big names are back. Tendulkar, who hasn't played in four years, is keen, as his 40th birthday approaches, to get in some first class cricket ahead of the England tour. Ditto Zaheer Khan, although his 40th is some years away. One of the positive fallouts of the much-criticised Champions League Twenty20 2012 is this keenness by players to get in some first-class match practice.
V V S Laxman had said while announcing his retirement that his one remaining ambition was to lead Hyderabad to the Ranji title. He is suiting action to his words now. Sourav Ganguly played on after retirement too, which is a wonderful thing. Some stars believe they might be standing in the way of a youngster if they return to Ranji, but what they bring to the team in terms of confidence and what may be termed cricket tutorials far outweigh such considerations. A season playing with a Laxman or a Dravid and what they bring to the dressing room is far more profitable for a youngster, even if it leads to a delay in getting the opportunity to display his wares.
There is a good feeling about the Ranji Trophy as its 80th birthday approaches. It doesn't matter who wins so long as the tournament regains its primacy in the domestic circuit.