What is ailing Bengal cricket?

This Ranji season there is once again a sense of optimism as Bengal remain in contention going into the final round of the league phase PTI

Bengal last reached the Ranji Trophy final in the 2006-07 season, when they were undone by a Zaheer Khan-inspired Mumbai outfit. That was their second consecutive Ranji final, having lost to Uttar Pradesh the previous season. Since then Bengal have remained on the outside fringes on the Indian first-class circuit despite having won the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament once each [East Zone won the latter once too, when the format changed in 2016-17].

This Ranji season there is once again a sense of optimism as Bengal remain in contention going into the final round of the league phase. They have been rather impressive in patches, but it won't surprise anyone, including themselves, if Bengal fail to make the knockouts. Same old story, people will say, and move on.

It is a paradox that the state that gave Indian cricket a pioneering administrator in Jagmohan Dalmiya, and a successful international captain in Sourav Ganguly, currently the BCCI president, has struggled and stagnated when it comes to cricket.

Since Ganguly retired, only four players from Bengal have played for India: Ashok Dinda and Manoj Tiwary featured briefly in the mid-2010s but couldn't quite stay the course; Mohammed Shami has become one of the premier all-format bowlers for India while Wriddhiman Saha remains the first-choice wicketkeeper in Test cricket.

"Any major, or even mid-level, cricket team should have at least a few back-ups. In Bengal, that is not the case" Deep Dasgupta

Apart from these four, Bengal's current captain Abhimanyu Easwaran has been watched closely by the national selectors, but his poor form in the current season - 182 runs at 20.22 in 11 innings before the final round - has put pressure on the 24-year-old who shifted to Kolkata from Dehradun. There is also Ishan Porel, who was part of the 2018 Under-19 World Cup-winning squad and is currently part of the India A outfits.

But overall, Bengal have continued to remain outsiders on the Ranji circuit. If it has featured in the headlines, it has been because of controversies.

Tiwary, who has been their best batsman this season so far, was removed as captain at the outset. No reasons were given.

There was the incident involving Devang Gandhi, former opening batsman and now national selector, being spotted in the Bengal dressing room during a break in play in one of the Ranji games, and being removed, though CAB officials played down the incident.

The biggest story, however, involved the removal of Dinda, the team's senior-most pacer, from the squad altogether after ugly scenes with the bowling coach Ranadeb Bose.

But these stories, and this season, aren't an exception. Even though, after eight rounds of the Ranji Trophy, the team is up at No. 4 in the Elite cross pool [groups A and B combined]. Fair to ask then, what's so rotten in the state of Bengal?

"It's not one thing," a senior member of the squad told ESPNcricinfo. "I feel the selection policy is the main problem, selection has not been up to the mark. We have a young captain, but he doesn't always get the team he wants. The controversy from the start of the season [the captaincy swap], Dinda's problems, the dressing room atmosphere is not right… if the senior-most bowler and the bowling coach don't get along, if they don't see eye-to-eye, eventually it will have an effect."

He revealed that the Dinda incident created factions within the dressing room, even though no one was willing to take responsibility or put things in order.

Who is running the ship?

Matters of discipline are usually handled with firm hands in the team management, by the captain or the coach. In Bengal's case, the centre of power is slightly elsewhere - in the hands of the CAB, led by Avishek Dalmiya now, and Ganguly not too long ago.

Late in the 2018-19 season, as Bengal floundered, former Bengal captain Arun Lal was appointed as mentor, even though former Mumbai captain Sairaj Bahutule was still the head coach. Lal then took over as the coach this season. People in the know say Lal was brought in because of increasing dissent in the ranks following a succession of poor results under Bahutule. "I am someone the players are comfortable with, and the association officials trust," Lal said, explaining his new appointment.

Lal is one of the nicest people you'll meet, and Bengal cricketers concur. But the players' vote is split on Lal the coach - "helpful" to one, "bad-tempered" to another. Another player called Lal "a good salesman" tasked with selling a "rubbish product" [Bengal cricket]. Players agreed Lal could be a good motivator but hasn't really been in touch with modern cricket.

"The selection policy is the main problem, selection has not been up to the mark. We have a young captain, but he doesn't always get the team he wants" An unnamed team member

Then there is Abhimanyu, who is looked at as an outsider. Some believe he is playing for Bengal only to further his own ambitions of playing for India, even though his father, RP Easwaran, says the big reason for moving his son to Kolkata was the "flexible and open" Bengal cricketing system.

"Not a born leader. No gut feeling. No decision-making. He is a puppet [of the selectors]," a team member says. But he also calls Abhimanyu a nice guy, and that burdening him with leadership duties will only hurt everyone in the process.

Naresh Ojha, CAB vice-president, disagrees. "He [Abhimanyu] is a calm guy, a composed guy, he's the right guy for the job. We have chosen him with a long-term view. It's a matter of time. He is settling in, so give him a little time, and he will do well."

Lal, too, had endorsed Easwaran's appointment. "He is a terrific batsman, very, very talented, and he has exceptional work ethic. I like him very much. He has been living alone in Kolkata, away from his family, for a while now, but it hasn't affected his game at all. It's quite remarkable. I also like that he is very respectful towards his seniors and towards his team-mates."

"We are handing debuts to 30-31-year-old players"

In November 2015, former Bengal captain Raju Mukherjee resigned as chief selector of Bengal. "I am extremely disappointed with Raju's behaviour. I used to respect him a lot but... this was totally uncalled for," Ganguly was quoted as saying by The Telegraph at the time.

The issue was over identifying a replacement for Saha when the senior man had to leave for India duties. Raju had opted for a young man called Sayan Mukherjee, who was in the squad, but Shreevats Goswami ended up playing the next match, against Haryana, apparently following CAB interference. Raju tells his side of the story: "Sourav and I go back a long way, and we have been very close over the years. But this was not acceptable to me, and if I am not doing the selecting, then I see no reason to continue."

It's probably not worth going too far back to look at baffling selection calls in Bengal. Dinda, a giant of the domestic circuit even if he could never quite stay at the highest level, played just one game this season, got three wickets in an eight-wicket win, and was then suspended following the altercation with Bose.

His replacement was Akash Deep, a 23-year-old from Bihar, has done well, picking up 20 wickets in eight innings. But there have been other questionable selections when it comes to fast bowlers especially. Ayan Bhattacharjee, a 28-year-old who had last played a first-class match in 2016, was picked against Delhi, and bowled just six overs in a rain-hit match where Delhi did face 82 overs. He batted No. 8 and scored a duck. Then we have Nilkantha Das, who was handed a first-class debut at 31. Somewhere along the way, Kazi Saifi got a first-class debut as a batsman too, and scored 27 and 9 in his two innings so far.

One disadvantage for Bengal compared to other sides like Vidarbha has been the pool of players graduating from the age group to Under-19 to Under-23 to Ranji ranks successfully. Those keeping a close watch say Bengal's youngsters have failed to make the cut.

Dubious selections, many believe, continue to hurt Bengal cricket. Two recent examples are Pradipta Pramanik and Aamir Gani. Pramanik, a left-arm spinner who is still only 21, hasn't played first-class cricket this season at all despite a bowling average of 24.56. The same is the case with Banaras-born offspinner Gani, 23. His bowling average of 35.13 isn't great for a frontline spinner, but he was in the set-up for four seasons before being shunted out.

Deep Dasgupta, former India wicketkeeper-batsman and Bengal captain, agrees. "That just about sums it up, doesn't it? That we are handing debuts to 30-31-year-old players. It's not their fault, but something's wrong somewhere that we can't find a 20-25-year-old when we need one," he says. "Any major, or even mid-level, cricket team should have at least a few back-ups. In Bengal, that is not the case."

"It's a vicious loop"

Another big factor affecting the grassroots as well as the senior level is the absence of quality coaches. CAB has hired the likes of WV Raman, Paras Mhambrey and Bahutule but insiders believe that has only hurt because there is no home-grown coach, except that the age-group level and in the academies. Despite most ex-Bengal players being coaches, but there is a vacuum of sorts, especially because many of them are not quite modern in their approach: one administrator brings up former Indian opener Pranab Roy, the state Under-16 coach, who is "still teaching kids to bat side-on".

"It's a vicious loop," says an insider. "In the second division, outsiders are not allowed. Why not in the first division then? Play only local cricketers, and bring in professionals. If we had brought in, say, a Jalaj Saxena, he could have improved other cricketers. Abhimanyu and Ishan Porel aside, no one is good enough. We had players before who could have played in other states. Now, apart from these two players, no one is good enough."

A solid cricket structure is, Dasgupta believes, the way forward. He feels the problem is in the focus on the Ranji Trophy and the club circuit, and not on the feeder system. "Why can't there be a full-time director of cricket, and a committee, come out with a proposal, debate… because the feeding system needs an upgrade," he says. "School, college, university, corporate - we need to focus there. We can't take away club cricket, but we need to build something around it that is of equal importance.

"See, if you don't focus on the Under-16s and Under-19s, it's not like it used to be. There are far too many distractions now. If a talented kid from a middle-class family sees that he is not getting the right opportunities and the clubs are influencing the selection, he has other career options. Same with Under-19s, the college kids, the university kids. Of course, this is not just in Bengal, but in Bengal, there isn't a lot of cricket. We haven't got a proper second division in place. Kids play 50-100 games a year in Mumbai and Delhi and Bangalore, here we have 20-25 games in a year. In the second division, people who are 30-40 are playing. It should be restricted to youngsters, if we want a proper pipeline in place."

Dasgupta doesn't quite say it's a lost cause but agrees that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Bengal, with other parts of the country investing far more in cricket.

"If we play 100 games a year, a failure in one game won't faze me, it won't put me under pressure. We need to get out of the shell. What happens here is that our boys play just a handful of games, and they need to do well in those," Dasgupta explains. "We don't have an office league anymore. Even when it was there, the top guys wouldn't bother. The local structure, it looks organised from the outside, but it isn't, it's ruled by the clubs. When the clubs become powerful, they call the shots, they pull strings."

Dasgupta wants a stronger Under-16 set-up, including a two-day competition, to teach youngsters to "bat for three sessions" or "bowl 20 overs in a day". He isn't hopeful of that happening, though.

Vision 2020 - what came of it?

Incidentally, Bengal was one of the first states to take a forward-looking step when the CAB put in a place an ambitious Vision 2020 plan. It was launched in 2014 and was Ganguly's brainchild - he was the CAB's joint-secretary then, with Dalmiya still the boss. The plan was to get the cricketing greats from across the world to nurture young talent. "We want to help players in Bengal. I realise the need of having the expertise to take Bengal players ahead. These youngsters need special guidance and we can't have better persons than Waqar [Younis] and Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan]," Ganguly had said at its inception.

His ambition was to "build a centre of excellence" for Bengal cricket. "We want to be like a Mumbai or Karnataka, who keep producing players. Hopefully, we'll be able to succeed." Unfortunately, it hasn't quite happened.

The insider says Muralitharan and Laxman did spend a little time with the players, but for the rest of the time, local coaches were in charge. Ojha counters: "Vision 2020 was to put a system in place, to churn out a good number of players. It has worked, but not as well as we have expected. When an icon speaks, they will listen, they pick up things. It's a continuous process, and we wait for deliverance. We are providing everything, now we wait for good performances." It's been six years.

So far, it has been a decent season for Bengal in the Ranji Trophy, but players and coaches aren't banking on any major success, not in a sustained way, for sure. It does seem like the rot runs deep. "Dada [Ganguly] can't know everything," a team member says. True. But systems must be put in place - like Dasgupta recommends - to set things right. For the long term. It needs vision. There are people with enough power and influence to do it. But Bengal continues to wait.