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By Suresh Menon
The IPL has shown the positive effects of youngsters sharing a dressing room with world class performers from different countries. The impact of a Shane Warne on Rajasthan Royals, for example, was profound in the first year of the tournament. Not only did the team win the title, Warne gave periodic plugs to the promising youngsters, and was responsible for the 'rockstar' image bestowed on Ravindra Jadeja, currently an India regular.
Bowling with Dale Steyn or batting with Michael Hussey can be an education, and many youngsters have benefited.
Perhaps the time has come to extend the concept, and introduce foreign stars into the Ranji Trophy championship. The domestic first class game in India has been suffering for want of public interest, and if even a small percentage of the folks who turn up at the stadiums to watch a Chris Gayle or an A B de Villiers in action turn up for a Ranji match involving them, then it will only benefit Indian cricket.
With a less hectic schedule and a longer game to play, it will mean that a foreign player will have a bigger impact on the game and its local players. Steyn could be spending time with Umesh Yadav over the course of a season, or Gayle with Unmukt Chand; lessons would be absorbed by osmosis even if not through specific coaching sessions. The best tend to influence those around them.
The obvious objection – that this would cut the opportunties of local talent – is countered by sensible rules that will restrict the number of foreign players a team can field. Perhaps the outside 'professional' (they are all professionals now, as the fee for a Ranji match is quite impressive) could have a few mandatory coaching sessions for budding players in his state written into his contract. A few days of Adam Gilchrist in Shimoga, for example, can do more for the game there than sending over a bunch of bored coaches who are merely 'doing a job.'
The idea is neither new nor original. It has popped up for time to time over the past half century; at least since the 1962-63 season when the fast bowlers from the West Indies: Roy Gilchrist, Lester King, Chester Watson and Charlie Stayers were invited to play in the four zones when the Ranji Trophy was a zonal competition in the early stages before the zonal winners played the knockout.
They didn't play long enough to make a serious impact, and India was hardly the destination of choice for cricketers then anyway.
Things are different now. One or two top foreign players will bring in the crowds, greater television interest, and most importantly, lessons in professionalism for our young cricketers. Thanks to the cricket board's funds, most Ranji teams can now afford to put aside good money for an outside professional – something that wasn't possible till recently. There is also the possibility of attracting sponsors for individuals – one needs hardly tpoint this out to the cricket board which is a past master in the art of translating possibilities into money. That is also the answer to state cricket boards who say they cannot afford foreign players and are thus disadvantaged.
Test players are born in Ranji tents, performances at the national championships count towards selection for the Test team. Yet this is the most neglected nursery around. When the focus returns to Ranji cricket, it will have an effect on two aspects that need care – the rules, which place an unholy emphasis on first innings lead, and the preparation of wickets where mediocre batsmen make triple centuries.
India have struggled on livelier tracks abroad – most recently in Australia where they lost a series 4-0 – and having a bunch of fast bowlers operating in the Ranji Trophy would not only lead to better wickets but also train our batsmen to play pace.
The IPL may not have been as big a success without its foreign stars. The Ranji Trophy can borrow that idea for the greater good.