CHENNAI: High-fives may have not been exchanged, but there were some congratulatory messages gleefully shared at the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) office last February. With Shahrukh Khan, C Hari Nishaanth and M Siddarth finding themselves in the “sold” category of the IPL 2021 auction list, it was a moment of victory for TNCA. They now had the maximum representation of players from any state in the Indian Premier League (IPL), a tournament that takes precedence over everything else when it comes to attracting eyeballs on television.
Out of the 12 players, at least eight of them were going to be regulars in the playing XI, and the fact that franchises weren’t thinking twice about going for these emerging talents like Shahrukh Khan, Varun Chakravarathy and Washington Sundar in recent years was a testament to how their own product, the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), had grown over the years.
A league of its own
Launched in 2016, TNPL — Tamil Nadu’s version of the IPL — is already a big hit. Not just for the franchises or the players, or from a broadcaster’s point of view. It is now attracting IPL talent scouts, resulting in more and more players from Tamil Nadu being called up for audition ahead of every player auction. It is also giving Tamil Nadu some exciting talents from the districts — something that was always considered neglected in the bigger scheme of things — who are now forming the backbone of the state’s white-ball teams. It is reflecting in the performance of the team in Vijay Hazare Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali T20s.
In the upcoming T20 World Cup, to be played in the UAE in October-November, India — searching for their second title in the format — have chosen to keep their faith in Chakravarthy, an architect-turned-cricketer, who has made a name for himself in this category. There is also T Natarajan, whose inspiring career graph has had more twists and turns than Kollywood scripts. His selection has made boys next door believe it is possible to play in the IPL, provided you catch the eye of the talent scouts through TNPL. And with a big IPL player auction slotted for December or early next year, we can expect some of them to become Crorepatis.
The TNPL isn’t the only such event. There are similar leagues in Karnataka, Mumbai, Puducherry, Jharkhand and Saurashtra too. But not all of them have thrown in talents like TNPL does. “It is creating a healthy system. The association put a platform in place and the players have used it to grow to the next level. It is all about providing an opportunity for the talent,” says TNCA secretary RS Ramasaamy.
For years, the First Divison league in Chennai used to be the one every cricketer in the state and from other parts of country looked forward to. Run by some of the big corporate houses in Chennai, they not only provided cricketers with regular jobs but also made them evolve as players. Among the most competitive ones in the country, the three-day matches have seen some of Indian cricket’s legends feature in different eras. It is for this reason that even a player like Cheteshwar Pujara takes time from his busy schedule and plays in the league.
Fault lines of failure
In 2019, with Tamil Nadu’s Ranji Trophy performances already on the wane — they haven’t won the title since 1987-88 season — the TNCA decided to make the First Division league a two-day affair. Now, into the third season, it has already received a thumbs down from former players, who believe it is not helping one bit when it comes to developing long-format players. Their criticism is fair. For, in the recently concluded 2020 First Divison league, none of the teams even batted 100 overs (the restricted cap) in the semifinals and final.
“It is about the mindset,” a former Tamil Nadu great says on condition of anonymity. “You need to play three-day cricket to develop a mindset that will be needed to play the Ranji Trophy. It is not enough if you keep dreaming about winning the Ranji Trophy. You need to put the plans and system in place,” he adds. It is an issue even the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin and Murali Vijay have emphasised in recent times. A player is a product of the environment he grows up in and despite having the supposedly best league structure in India, the state hasn’t been able to produce Test players.
Two of the latest players from Tamil Nadu to receive a Test cap for India — Washington and Natarajan — did so because of circumstances in Australia. Had quarantine norms not been in place, neither would have played Test cricket for India. That they grabbed the opportunity is a different story. But these things don’t couch how bad Tamil Nadu have been in red-ball cricket. Even worse is the fact that the state hasn’t had representation at the Under-19 World Cup in successive editions.
“Red-ball cricket definitely needs attention. It is something we have been discussing and planning about. Going forward, we might even have separate teams for white-ball and red-ball cricket. Despite all the success with the white ball, the association’s focus remains on winning the Ranji Trophy. We need to improve a lot of things and key among them is the pitches they play. For the upcoming season, the selectors and coaches have asked for an extended camp for red-ball cricket. The team will be provided with different pitches — seam, bounce, spin and flat; so that they get all the right preparations,” says Ramasaamy.
There are also fears that there is a talent drain when it comes to red-ball cricket that is leading to less and less competition. Despite some ordinary performances with bat and ball in recent times in successive domestic seasons, the selectors have not been able to look beyond them as there are not many knocking on the doors. Former cricketers, who have been involved in the set-up, believe it is because not many are graduating from Under-19 to the senior level. With the quality of the pitches also being a cause of concern in the First Division, to say an overhaul of the system is needed is an understatement.
The way forward
Given the commercial success of TNPL, the TNCA can invest in improving the standards of the First Division and even allow more professionals to feature in the XI as it would only enhance the quality. “We are not going to get answers overnight. We are looking at where it is going wrong because the performance of the age-group side is becoming a cause of concern. If the performances are not up to the mark this season, we have to get down to the bottom and see where it is going wrong. If there is a problem at that level, then it will affect the senior side too,” says Ramasaamy.
It is not that TNCA is not short on ideas. In WV Raman and Bharat Arun, it has two renowned former players who have coached at the highest level. “Make the First Division league a three-day affair and improve the quality of pitches, you will automatically see a difference. We need to have a bigger pool of players and unless that is achieved, you are only going to accept mediocrity. You need to produce fast bowlers and without having them, you cannot win Ranji Trophy. It is a long process, which needs to start now,” says one former player.
Case against a two-day First Division affair
Three years into the two-day First Division league, the criticism that it doesn’t develop long-format players is still strong. For, in the recently concluded 2020 First Divison league, none of the teams even batted 100 overs.