They heaved, they cheered, they even sang ‘happy birthday’ to Abhimanyu Mithun, who had a 30th to remember. If you happened to be at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium on Friday and closed your eyes, you could have imagined you were at an international game. Or perhaps an IPL match because chants of “Aaaar Ceeee Beeee” kept ringing out.
It was not a match involving either India or the Royal Challengers. The occasion was the Vijay Hazare Trophy final, pitting traditional rivals against each other: Karnataka v Tamil Nadu. Two teams that have shared the most number of titles in this domestic one-day tournament.
The old rivalry was lent new spark by the number of high-profile players participating. Eleven of the 22 players on show – Mayank Agarwal, Manish Pandey, KL Rahul, Karun Nair, Mithun, R Ashwin, Dinesh Karthik, M Vijay, Vijay Shankar, Washington Sundar and Abhinav Mukund – have played for India at one time or the other in the past few years.
The importance of the game was underlined by the presence of Ashwin and Agarwal in particular. They didn’t need to be there for the game – they chose to dash from Ranchi, the venue of India’s final Test against South Africa, to join their respective teams before the semi-finals.
The Bengaluru crowds came in a body to witness the match, and its multiple one-on-one contests, making for a pleasant change from the domestic cricket cliche of three men and a dog as the only viewers. It wasn’t a full house, not even close. It was approximately 4,000 strong – but 4,000 can make the noise of forty thousand when they chant in unison. And 4,000 at a domestic match is, quite simply, unheard of. In early 2013, when the Ranji Trophy-winning Mumbai side were playing against Rest of India, the most the Wankhede Stadium had on any of the five days of the game was 1,000 spectators – and that was on the day Sachin Tendulkar was scoring an immaculate century. The Wankhede couldn’t draw more than 1,000 when Tendulkar was batting – that’s how big the 4,000 figure is.
A Karnataka State Cricket Association official who has barely missed a match at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium since the early 1970s reckoned that this was the largest crowd he had seen for a domestic match here in 20 years.
They came to see two teams with a storied history taking on each other, but they came in droves because of the players in those two teams.
Even those who didn’t have an India cap yet were still relatively well known. There was Devdutt Padikkal, the tournament’s highest run-getter, K Gowtham, familiar through IPL exploits, and Shahrukh Khan, who has shot into the limelight by dint of name and deeds, along with the likes of B Aparajith, M Ashwin and T Natarajan who have all been part of IPL and/or India Under-19 teams.
That rain eventually curtailed the finish did not dampen spirits, of the crowd or the players.
“It’s always a nice feeling to play in front of a crowd, that’s what you play sport for,” Tamil Nadu captain Karthik said. “At the end of the day, sport is about entertainment and you want to have people watch you, clap for you, and go through all the emotions that you go through on the field. So it’s always good to have a crowd. I was really happy that people turned out in numbers. If we can find ways to get probably a little more engagement from the public, it’ll be even better.”
For Karnataka captain Pandey, it was the passionate support that mattered. “We were glad we had a game in Bangalore, because the crowd is always behind us from the first ball,” he said. “Not only these one-dayers but even in the Ranji Trophy, they always come and back us. Maybe it’s more numbers today, but any voice from outside beyond the 11 guys playing inside definitely helps. Great bunch of people coming and supporting us, it was definitely an advantage.”
The turnout for this match in the light of what new BCCI president Sourav Ganguly said about making domestic cricketers his first priority is significant. While Ganguly spoke in terms of increasing remuneration, this match showed that domestic cricket could be a draw for fans too.
“We have to make sure the best tournament in the country is competitive, and it remains important to everyone now because that’s where you get the Kohlis and MS Dhonis, Ajinkya Rahanes and Rohit Sharmas of Indian cricket,” Ganguly had said. “So that structure has to be the best, both structure-wise and financially, and that will happen. That will be the first thing that will be done by the Apex Council.”
The more top cricketers are available to play in domestic competitions, the more competitive it will be. And part of the ‘structure’ that Ganguly spoke of, is surely properly marketing the domestic game. Imagine if it could receive the treatment that international series or the IPL gets. Granted, all domestic games won’t have international stars and the pull that this final had – but domestic players can also be made into stars with the proper exposure. And giving domestic cricketers a wider audience is part of looking after them.
This Vijay Hazare Trophy final has charted a path, and it’s upto the BCCI to now take it.