x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Nothing first left in cricket's first-class games

Once, first-class cricket was the foundation of the game. The adage went that a strong domestic competition meant a competitive and formidable national team.

Sachin Tendulkar made a rare appearance for his state side Mumbai in a domestic game for the Ranji Trophy this week.
Sachin Tendulkar made a rare appearance for his state side Mumbai in a domestic game for the Ranji Trophy this week.

The weekend just past was an unprecedented one in the recent annals of Indian cricket.

While the rest played Ranji Trophy games for their teams, Cheteshwar Pujara, whose side Saurashtra had a bye in the opening round, made a guest appearance for Mumbai A against an England XI.

With the exception of MS Dhoni, who did not turn out for Jharkhand, and Yuvraj Singh, resting after his exertions for India A against the touring English, every member of the Indian first XI likely to take the field against England in Ahmedabad on November 15 was playing first-class cricket.

Once, first-class cricket was the foundation of the game. The adage went that a strong domestic competition meant a competitive and formidable national team.

But in recent decades, with the advent of, first, one-day cricket and then Twenty20, the long form of the game has become forgotten cousin.

To see how much times have changed, it is instructive to look at the five men who were voted Wisden's Cricketers of the 20th Century.

Sir Jack Hobbs played first-class cricket until he was 52. He was 46 when he scored the last of his 15 Test centuries. Hobbs played 61 Tests, and an astonishing 773 other first-class fixtures, in which he scored another 184 hundreds.

Sir Donald Bradman, who replaced Hobbs as the prototype for the perfect batsman, also played more than three times as many state games and tour matches for Australia (182) as he did Tests (52). Of the 117 first-class hundreds he scored, only 29 came in Tests.

By the time Sir Garfield Sobers was in his prime, the balance had already begun to shift - county cricket embraced the one-day game in 1963, although it would be another eight years before the first international was played.

Sobers scored 26 of his 86 first-class hundreds in Tests, but his tally of 290 games outside the Test arena was still a significant one.

Viv Richards made 114 first-class centuries, 24 of them in Tests, and turned out for provincial sides such as Leeward Islands, Somerset, Glamorgan and Queensland in 386 games.

The fifth member of the elite list, Shane Warne, made his debut less than five months after Richards retired.

But by then, the cricket landscape had changed totally, with the new generation about to fully enjoy the fruits from the tree Kerry Packer and World Series Cricket had planted in the late 1970s.

Of the 301 first-class games that Warne played, 145 were in the Test arena. He picked up 708 Test wickets. Outside of it, there were only 611 victims. You can easily find a parallel there with Anil Kumble, the other great leg-spinner of the age.

Most of Kumble's 244 first-class matches came in Test cricket (132) and he also picked up more wickets on the big stage (619 to 517).

Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar (51 Test centuries in a total of 78 in first-class cricket) were India teammates for 18 years. The teams they represented in domestic cricket, Mumbai and Karnataka, were among the strongest in the country. Yet, given crowded international itineraries, their paths never crossed once in a Ranji game.

Change is inevitable, but it is hard to overstate just how much upcoming players may have lost out by being deprived of the chance to play first-class cricket with the stalwarts.

Where does a young fast bowler in South Africa look to for inspiration? In nine years, Dale Steyn has played just 43 first-class matches outside of Tests, taking 159 wickets. Richard Hadlee, a similar bowler a generation ago, had 1,059 wickets to add to the 431 in Tests.

The alarm bells have begun to ring in Australia with Pat Cummins, the 19-year-old fast bowler, set to miss another full season through injury. Cummins has played just four first-class games, while representing Australia and others in as many as 28 Twenty20 matches.

Trying to run without perfecting the walk is risky business.

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