February 20, 2008 was one of the most significant days in the history of Indian cricket. It was a day which changed the game’s landscape forever. While the media went into a tizzy as big business houses bought cricketers in the first-ever Indian Premier League (IPL) auction at a five star hotel in the city, not a soul was bothered about the Duleep Trophy final at the Wankhede Stadium, except a handful of journalists in the old press box.

Perhaps, this inter-zonal tournament died that day itself, though the official ‘death certificate’ was issued by Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) more than seven years later, on Monday. The board kicked out the event after it had, ironically, just ‘celebrated’ its 50th birthday last season, while announcing the domestic cricket schedule for the forthcoming season.

Over the last few years, the event, which was launched in the 1961-62 season in memory of KS Ranjitsinhjee’s nephew Duleepsinhji, had begun to lose significance, with top players missing it due to international commitments and domestic cricketers just going through the motions while playing in it.

With IPL’s arrival, the domestic schedule became more and more packed, and it was tossed around in the calender, before finally getting a temporary burial.

“We have scheduled 900 matches in six months, starting from October 1, fitting in seven years of cricket in one. Where was the place for the Duleep Trophy?” a BCCI official told TOI on Monday. “With the T20 WC scheduled to be held in India next year, our focus is naturally on the limited over tournaments. But it hasn’t been scrapped. Since we’re playing plenty of Tests next season, be assured, it would be held next time,” he added.

The tournament still holds a significant place in the heart of Indian cricket, with stars like Dilip Vengsarkar and Sourav Ganguly making their way into the Indian team with strong performances in it. Former India skipper Ajit Wadekar still remembers how a double hundred for West Zone against a star-studded South in the 1966-67 Duleep final in Kolkata helped him earn selection into the Indian team.

“The South Zone team led by ML Jaisimha and included West Indies’ pace ace Roy Gilchrist, who was banned for chucking later. I was hit on the pads off the first ball which I faced from Gilchrist, and was caught by Jaisimha at gully. After a loud appeal, I was given not out by the umpire.

“Then, to incite Gilchrist, Jaisimha walked up to him and muttered: ‘Look at this youngster. He doesn’t even walk after knowing that he’s out.’ An enraged Gilchrist then peppered me with bouncers and beamers the entire day. That, remember, wasn’t the era of helmets, and Gilchrist was probably the quickest fast bowler of our times! Later that evening, he apologized while we were having a drink. ‘Don’t worry, all part of the game’ I said. I went on to score a double ton and secured my selection into the Indian team,” Wadekar reminisced.

It is quite ridiculous that an annual domestic tournament that has been held for over half a century should be given a miss on the grounds that the international calendar happens to be busier this year than in many others.

Quite apart from the fact that tradition is not something to be so lightly trifled with, the truth is that most of India’s international stars in any case hardly ever play this tournament. There is no reason, therefore, to deny budding talent to showcase its skills on a stage that demands more than the Ranji Trophy and hence allows the national selectors to take a good look at those they might think are ready for the next step. – [TNN]