The Indian Premier League (IPL) is not only a T20 cricket tournament. It is an organisation providing job opportunities to a pool of untapped talent. And with the colossal domestic setup, only a selected few earn the call-up.
What happens to the rest? How do they keep themselves motivated?
No IPL, No Problem
Akshdeep Nath of Uttar Pradesh, who represented Kings XI Punjab, now-defunct Gujarat Lions, and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the past, kept himself occupied with district tournaments this time around.
"I played one-day matches in Delhi in the past two months. Match fitness is the most important thing to be maintained, so I wanted to play games. It is good that the knockouts are happening in Bengaluru, and there will not be much heat. But it will be slightly tougher as it is not December-January like the usual Ranji calendar," he said.
Most of these district games in north India, though limited-overs, were played with the red ball.
Akshdeep had no complaints about missing the IPL as it allowed him to train wisely. "I went week by week. One week of extra running and only gymming in the next. Recovery is crucial in this phase as it is prone to cramps and injuries. I was also trying to train on green tops to prepare for the Ranji knockouts. I am sure Karnataka will go for a green top," said the middle-order batter.
Akshdeep feels anybody who gets to play the IPL should make the most of it. "Anyone who is part of it is lucky. Even if you don't play games, you learn from the best international players from their respective countries and the coaches. You can get to play games, but it may not happen all the time. Rinku Singh got a few games this time, but Priyam Garg didn't get too many. You have to use the training setups to improve as a player."
He added that the players who do not play in the IPL should not lose heart. "You have an extra 15 days of rest and two months to prepare for the next season."
Karnataka batter R Samarth, part of Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL 2022, seconded Akshdeep. He learnt a lot even though he did not get a game.
"It was my first IPL, and there was a lot of learning. I got to rub shoulders with some senior players and legendary coaches," said Samarth, whose eyes are on Ranji after playing the practice game against Bengal.
He praised the SRH support staff for keeping him motivated.
Escape from bubble
Jharkhand skipper Saurabh Tiwary, an IPL veteran, missed out on the 2022 edition. He saw it as a blessing in disguise. After playing two seasons in bio-bubbles due to COVID restrictions, the former Mumbai Indians batter relaxed this summer. Even the Ranji league games were in a bio-secure bubble in Guwahati and Kolkata.
"It is good I got the break. It is difficult to keep playing while staying in bio-bubbles. Our rhythm got broken, that's true, but we came to Bengaluru earlier to train and get used to the weather," he said.
Tiwary said the life of a domestic cricketer doesn't stop at IPL. "We keep playing matches. We played games in Ranchi before we started the season. We qualified for the knockouts after six years, and we want to finish well.
"I chose not to play many games this time as I thought preparing with the red ball could help me more as Ranji was starting after a break," said Tiwary, who motivates all the youngsters in his team, even if they do not have an IPL contract. "Youngsters are much more aware today. They know how to make the most of the opportunities. If I have to make a comeback in the IPL, I know I have to perform here. This is the basic level.
"And Ranji performances matter. If you don't get to play for India, at least you will get an India A call-up which will help you improve as a player. You will be in the reckoning if you perform in Ranji," he added.
A few cricketers, including red-ball specialists Hanuma Vihari and Abhimanyu Easwaran, utilised the break caused by IPL to earn game time in Bangladesh.
Bengal captain Abhimanyu represented Prime Bank in the Dhaka Premier League that ended in April.
"Dhaka Premier League standard was amazing, and I got to play with international cricketers. It was great exposure; great learning playing on different wickets," said Abhimanyu, who returned to Kolkata to play a few club matches after the Dhaka sojourn.
The right-handed batter has turned heads in the longer format, but as a good striker of the ball, he is keen on playing the IPL in the future. "I would love to play. I am working hard for it. I hope it happens soon, as it is one of the best T20 leagues in the world. Selection is not in my hands, and I can't control that."
Abhimanyu expects the selectors to take note of the Ranji Trophy performances. And now that Rahul Dravid is the head coach of the Indian cricket team, it may inspire the Ranji players further. "He is one person who values Ranji performances. It is the premier tournament in our country, and it should get the value it deserves."
The Jaffer Way In the Maidans
Mumbai batter Armaan Jaffer, who smashed a hundred in the last Ranji game against Odisha, has played a few competitive games, corporate tournaments and the Times Shield to maintain the momentum.
Armaan, the nephew of former India international Wasim Jaffer, learnt the hard way in the maidans of Mumbai. And he believes the intensity in the club games will help him fare better in the Ranji knockouts.
The 23-year-old, who was once part of Kings XI Punjab, wishes to return to the tournament but not being part of it did not make his journey thorny. He understands the importance of youngsters in any format. "Whoever scores in bulk will get a chance to play for India because youngsters are getting a lot of backing. KS Bharat performed in Ranji and was in the India reserves, now he is the second-choice keeper after Rishabh Pant. That means there is a lot of importance to Ranji."
Armaan is also feeding off his Mumbai captain and IPL rockstar Prithvi Shaw.
Shaw's knowledge from the international and IPL setup is spreading positivity among his colleagues. "He has become a lot more calm. I have played only one game under him, and I have seen a lot from the sidelines. I am sure he has learnt from his seniors. He speaks to the young guys too. He has learnt after playing top-flight cricket. There is no senior-junior ambience in the dressing room," said Armaan.
Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Madhya Pradesh have qualified for the Ranji knockouts. The final will be played at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru from 22 June.