How the Ranji Trophy Exemplifies India's Unfulfilled Statehood Ambitions

The continued existence of Vidarbha and Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy is not only a reminder of cricket’s rich and complex past in India, but also of dissolved territorial units and unfulfilled statehood ambitions.

The Indian Premier League (IPL), which is into its twelfth season in 2019, follows the popular worldwide model of city-based franchises. When first introduced, the IPL ushered in a revolution in the way cricket had traditionally been structured. By contrast, the 2018–19 Ranji Trophy final between Vidarbha and Saurashtra provided an insight into the possible alternate history of Indian cricket. 

The Ranji Trophy's First Innings 

The Ranji Trophy draws on a much more complex historical, cultural and geographic genealogy. The continued existence of Vidarbha and Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy is not only a reminder of cricket’s rich and complex past in India, but also of dissolved territorial units and unfulfilled statehood ambitions. Neither Vidarbha nor Saurashtra are among India’s 29 states, but their cricket associations and history go back several decades. The Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) was formed in 1950, while the Vidarbha team first played in the Ranji Trophy in the 1957–58 season and was one of the successors to the Central Provinces (CP) and Berar team. 

Saurashtra cricket has had three incarnations before adopting its current name in 1950: the Western India States Cricket Association (WISCA), the Nawanagar Cricket Association, and the short-lived Kathiawar Cricket Association. A common thread that runs through Saurashtra cricket is its link with India’s royal past. Ranjitsinhji, after whom the Ranji Trophy is named, was the ruler of Nawanagar, one of the many princely states that dotted Saurashtra in British India.

Nawanagar, in its very first season in the Ranji Trophy in the 1936–37 season won the tournament, beating Bengal by a huge margin.[1] The victorious Nawanagar team was multi-racial and multireligious, with one Englishman—Sussex professional and Nawanagar captain A F Wensley—two Parsis, two Muslims and six Hindus, three of whom were princes. The two stars of the team were Vinoo Mankad and Amar Singh, both of whom had distinguished careers in the Indian team. In the final, both played a stellar role with 19-year-old Mankad scoring 185 in the first innings and Singh taking six wickets in the match. However, it was the princely connection, begun by Ranji, that marked out Saurashtra. Also central to this victory was the role played by Rajkot’s Rajkumar College, where Ranji and a host of princes from the region, including Ranji’s nephew Duleepsinhji, learnt to play cricket. According to Guha (2005), at least eight princes who studied at Rajkumar College, played for Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy. Courtesy of this royal connection, Saurashtra began hosting international matches as far back as 1933–34 when the Marleybone Cricket Club (MCC) team, led by the future English captain Douglas Jardine, played against WISCA and Jamnagar XI, a local team comprising primarily of royals.

Vidarbha’s cricketing history is neither as colourful nor as successful as Saurashtra’s. Until 2016, the furthest Vidarbha had reached in the Ranji Trophy was the quarter-finals. However, Vidarbha’s connection with storied crickets past is through C K Nayudu, Indian cricket’s first “superstar.”[2] Nayudu captained CP and Berar until 1950, when the team was replaced by the Madhya Pradesh and Vidarbha teams in independent India. The CP and Berar team played their home matches in Nagpur, which was the province’s capital and the Vidarbha Cricket Association’s headquarters. Nayudu epitomised the “shifting allegiances and porous boundaries” of the time (Guha 2005), going on to play for three more teams that straddled pre-independent and independent India: the Holkar, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh cricket teams.

The territorial aspirations of Saurashtra and Vidarbha have, however, taken somewhat different trajectories: Until 1956, Saurashtra enjoyed statehood in independent India as the United States of Saurashtra. It was merged into Bombay in 1956 and then into Gujarat in 1960 when Bombay was bifurcated into a Gujarati- and a Marathi-speaking state. Saurashtra’s loss of status as an independent state was unsurprising, since at the time of Indian independence the state occupied only 1.4% of India’s total area and 1.2% of the country’s population. One of the reasons that Saurashtra survived as a separate unit post-independence was due to the princely rulers who were against its immediate abolition. Though there were demands for a separate Saurashtra state in the 1960s, the movement did not gain much traction. These demands were based on economic grievances, and the absence of a linguistic or ethnic component could have also doomed the demand for a separate Saurashtra. However, as Spodek (1972) notes, the defusing of the Saurashtra demand was an example of the Indian state’s willingness to “negotiate the economic and social conflicts which often mark regional differences.”

Cricket and Territorial Aspirations

Though Vidarbha never held statehood status, the idea of a separate state predated Indian independence. In 1938, the CP and Berar legislature passed a resolution for a separate Mahavidarbha state. The State Reorganisation Commission in 1956 had also recommended a separate state for Vidarbha (Kumar 2013). The Nagpur Agreement which was signed in 1953 by leaders of the Marathi-speaking areas of Bombay, Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad states, had two important provisions: Vidarbha, Marathwada and western Maharashtra were to be treated as independent units for the purpose of development, and funds were to be allocated to these regions in proportion to their population. In 1956, Article 371(2) was inserted into the Constitution, which allowed the President of India to assign the governor of Maharashtra to establish separate development boards for Vidarbha, Marathwada and the rest of Maharashtra. However, the principal elements of the Nagpur Agreement, including the allocation of funds according to population, were not incorporated. Further in 1969, the Maharashtra government decided that the “district,” instead of a “region,” would be used as the primary unit of planning.

It was only in 1994 that three development boards were constituted for Vidarbha, Marathwada and the rest of Maharashtra. The allocation of funds to these development boards has, according to Kumar (2013), “begun to integrate the complexities of regional inequalities into the governing structure of Maharashtra.” This also tempered the demand for statehood from gaining momentum in the wake of the creation of Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh in 2000, and later the division of Andhra Pradesh in 2014.

Today, the demand for statehood for Vidarbha and Saurashtra have by and large receded. Indeed, this demand also threatened their existing cricket structure. Among the more contentious recommendations of the Supreme Court-appointed Lodha Committee was that of one state, one vote. This would have meant that not only would Saurashtra and Vidarbha lose their voting rights, but the cricketing powerhouses of Bombay and Baroda would have also faced the same plight. Though the Justice Lodha Committee recommendations, which was set up in 2015 to overhaul the functioning of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, gave short shrift to the role of cricketing centres such as Bombay and Saurashtra, it is not difficult to discern its rationale. One, it would have put cricket administration in line with India’s administrative and federal structure comprising 29 states; two, it would have struck at the power and the privileges of Maharashtra and Gujarat, which has six associations and six votes between them.

In a 2018 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the one state, one vote rule, taking into account the states’ historical relevance and their contribution towards the development of the sport (Rajagopal 2018). The Court’s ruling also backed claims of the Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA), which has been in existence since 1934, to represent Telangana. BCCI has not recognised the claims of a rival Telangana Cricket Association, formed in 2015.

Another important aspect of the 2018 Court ruling was the restoration of full membership and voting rights for the Railways, the Services and Indian Universities. This was again in recognition of the historic role played by these state institutions in the development of cricket, and also to look beyond territorial and state units. Indeed, the role of institutional teams and the armed services in the development of not just cricket, but also other sports, such as football and hockey in India is a crucial and sometimes overlooked one (Sen 2015).

It is a delicious irony that the man of the match in the 2019 Ranji Finals was Aditya Sarwate. His grand uncle Chandu Sarwate played alongside the likes of Nayudu for the Holkar team. Aditya Sarwate is also an employee of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which is apt given the role of state institutions in fostering sporting talent. Above all, the recent success of Vidarbha, which has won back-to-back Ranji trophies, can be credited in large part to coach Chandrakant Pandit and player Wasim Jaffer, both of whom have played for Mumbai in the Ranji trophy and for the Indian cricket team. Thus, cricket has acted as a bridge to overcome the traditional animosity that Vidarbha has had towards Bombay.

The Ranji Trophy can still produce match-ups like Saurashtra versus Vidarbha. However, it is also true that the genealogy that produces these contests is rooted in the past and has limited appeal. As of now, the Court and the BCCI have kept this structure alive, but given the dwindling popularity of the Ranji Trophy and competing tournaments like IPL, how long this structure and its attendant geography and genealogy can survive is a moot question.

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