Ranji Trophy, the premier red-ball tournament in India, used to be the passage to the Indian cricket team for many years. It is still considered the platform to impress the selectors, but in the past five years, only a few players have cemented their spot in international cricket.
Rishabh Pant (2016-17), Mayank Agarwal, and Hanuma Vihari (from 2017-18) are the only notable players who may thank Ranji for their ascension.
After Madhya Pradesh's maiden Ranji victory over Mumbai this weekend, the eyes will be on the future of Rajat Patidar (658 runs), Shubham Sharma (608 runs), Yash Dubey (614 runs), Kumar Kartikeya (32 wickets), and Gaurav Yadav (23 wickets) – the stars of the season.
No other player except Patidar is in the Indian Premier League (IPL), and that's a problem. Pant and Agarwal had the sweet cushion of franchise cricket that helped their case. They made every opportunity count.
Pant scored 972 runs at an average of 81 in the 2016-17 season for Delhi, before he swung his bat in the IPL. Being a wicketkeeper-batter strengthened his selection chances as Mahendra Singh Dhoni was towards the end of his career.
Agarwal was hard to ignore as he smashed runs across formats in 2017-18 to highlight his resume – 1,160 runs in Ranji, 723 in Vijay Hazare that Karnataka won, and 258 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy. And he fixed India's opening woes in the tour Down Under once he was selected.
Andhra boy Vihari had 752 runs under his belt at an average of 94 in 2017-18.
All three made their Test debut in 2018.
Delayed & Inconsistent Rewards
Shahbaz Nadeem, the prolific left-arm spinner, who finished the top wicket-taker (56 scalps) in Ranji 2016-17, had to wait two years for his Test debut. He couldn't break into the spin department held tightly by R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. It is rather unfortunate that there was an 18-month gap between his only two Tests for India – against South Africa in August 2019 and against England in February 2021.
Fast bowler Navdeep Saini had a stellar record in Ranji Trophy 2017-18 with 34 wickets in eight appearances for Delhi. He had destroyed Bengal in the semifinal along with Kulwant Khejroliya. Saini returned 4/35 as Bengal folded for 86.
The right-arm pacer had to wait two more years for his international debut (T20I) against the West Indies at Lauderhill in August 2019, followed by the maiden ODI appearance against Sri Lanka at Cuttack.
Saini played his only two Tests in Sydney and Brisbane in January 2021, besides eight ODIs and 11 T20Is. He is currently the travelling net bowler with the Indian team in England. His last international appearance was against Sri Lanka in a T20I in July 2021.
Difficult to Break Through
All-rounder Jalaj Saxena was the top wicket-taker for Kerala in 2017-18 with 44 wickets, besides scoring 522 runs. During the Duleep Trophy in 2019, the talented cricketer from Bhilai set a rare first-class record. He became the only uncapped player to smash 6,000+ runs and claim 300+ wickets in first-class cricket.
Saxena is still chasing his international cricket dreams. He has played only one IPL game and warmed the bench on most occasions over the years.
Originally a Madhya Pradesh cricketer, he moved to Kerala seven seasons ago.
No Players From Vidarbha
Some domestic cricketers were happy to represent India A as that puts a cricketer on the brink of an international call-up. However, only two players from two-time Ranji Trophy champion team Vidarbha got a call for India A – medium-pacer Rajneesh Gurbani, who claimed 39 wickets in the 2017-18 season, and left-arm spinner Aditya Sarwate (55 wickets in 2018-19). Both got limited opportunities and their careers remained stunted.
Vidarbha skipper Faiz Fazal scored 912 runs in 2017-18 and 752 in 2018-19, but he did not hear from the selectors. Fazal played a solitary ODI against Zimbabwe in 2016, where he had scored an unbeaten 55.
Sanjay Ramaswamy (775 runs in 2017-18) and wicketkeeper-batter Akshay Wadkar (725 runs in 2018-19) continue to play local club cricket and the leagues to keep themselves motivated.
Unadkat Still Waiting to Make a Return
Saurashtra captain Jaydev Unadkat was certain of making a comeback in international cricket after the victorious 2019-20 campaign. Even his teammate Cheteshwar Pujara had batted for his selection. The left-arm fast bowler finished the top wicket-taker with 67 wickets but did not get picked for India. Back in 2010, a young Unadkat had played one Test against South Africa.
Chetan Sakariya, another left-arm pacer from Saurashtra, was rewarded with an ODI and a couple of T20Is in the tour of Sri Lanka in July 2021. But more than Ranji, his inclusion was based on his performances with Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. However, his India dream started and ended with that series. Sakariya is not in the pipeline at the moment.
On Standby Mode... Since Years
Priyank Panchal, who scored 1,310 runs in Gujarat's victorious 2016-17 campaign was drafted into the Indian squad for the tour of South Africa in December 2021 as Rohit Sharma got injured. He is yet to make his debut.
Bengal batter Abhimanyu Easwaran has been travelling with the senior Test squad for a while but hasn't got a chance yet.
Easwaran had scored 861 runs in the 2018-19 season, which quickly opened up opportunities. He also scored heavily for India A.
What's the Alternative?
As the game has progressed with the advent of T20 and IPL, the selectors expect a player to punch all the bags to be eligible for selection. Youngsters have often been preferred to seasoned campaigners, and that's why players like Sheldon Jackson and Saxena have missed out despite staggering numbers in the Ranji Trophy.
The performances in the IPL have become crucial as the tournament tests a player's mental strength. And since the IPL includes international cricketers, it has become the top scouting pool. The tournament has made players out of Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya, who went on to win the IPL multiple times with Mumbai Indians.
And there have been players like Pant and KL Rahul who have proven that an IPL star can also perform in red-ball cricket.
Young pace sensation Umran Malik from Jammu and Kashmir is the latest IPL player to earn an India call-up.
Now, it will be interesting to see if Sarfaraz Khan is picked for the tour of Bangladesh as very few batters have crossed the 900-run mark in two Ranji seasons. And he has the IPL certificate too.
(Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya is an independent sports journalist based in Kolkata. He enjoys playing multiple sports when not reporting on it.)