The 2011-12 Ranji Trophy season had ended with a whimper when eventual champions Rajasthan out-batted Tamil Nadu over five days in the final at Chennai. That the summit clash ended in a drab draw reflected on the overall tournament: 88 matches played, 53 drawn, only 35 results—and the biggest turn-off was that seven of the nine knock-out matches were decided on the basis of the first-innings lead. The hue and cry forced the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to take note and swing into action.
Their Sourav Ganguly-led technical committee, of which former cricketer Anil Kumble was a part and W.V. Raman (also Bengal coach) a consultant, mooted changes in June. Since its inception in 1934, the Ranji format had undergone modifications on seven occasions. In this eighth instance, a more streamlined tournament was introduced—three groups, nine teams each, with a balanced promotion and relegation system, and a definitive increase in the number of matches.
There was another minor alteration. The points awarded for an outright win were increased from five to six. It was but a cosmetic change, as Delhi coach Vijay Dahiya pointed out. “The whole points system needs an overhaul. You cannot award points based on an entire innings spanning three days. Possibly, it should reflect the English county system, where the runs scored or wickets taken in only the first 90 overs count. I am not asking to copy their system, but a more keen approach needs to be worked out.”
Raman had suggested an overhaul of the points system to the committee but that was kept on hold. “If you talk in terms of qualifying for the knock-outs, the system more or less remains the same,” he had told ESPNcricinfo in the preview to the 2012-13 season. “The big positive is that everyone will be playing the same number of games. I doubt if it will change anything though. But I am interested in seeing the quality of pitches that are laid out this season.”
At the time of approving the format changes, the BCCI sent out a clear directive that the host associations ought to provide sporting wickets for all matches, league or knock-out. The intent to gain as many outright results as possible was clear, so much so that the duration of all knock-out matches was extended from four to five days.
Considering the league games and knock-outs together, 115 matches have been played this domestic season; they have produced 45 outright results and 70 matches have been drawn, including three in the quarter-finals (and one in the semi-final owing to inclement weather), never mind the extra day of play.
In comparison with last season, there is some consistency—60% of the matches were drawn in 2011-12 and that figure remains the same in 2012-13, despite all the changes.
“Sporting wickets aren’t made overnight,” said Dhiraj Prasanna, chief curator at the Sardar Patel Stadium, on the sidelines of the first India-England Test at Ahmedabad in November. “For example, we have relaid this pitch at Motera in 2012 and we worked hard for it to be up to scratch for this coming season. We have watered it and rolled it, yet the bounce is only satisfactory and we have to keep working on the square to get more out of it. It won’t happen in this Ranji season for sure.”
The veteran hinted that the problem might also lie elsewhere. “Sporting wickets don’t really assure you of results, particularly in Ranji Trophy league matches, in which matches only last four days and the first-innings lead rule gives you the desired points in away games,” Prasanna added. “We will make a fast-bouncy one or a square-turner, and one of the two captains whose team cedes an early advantage will go on the defensive and play for a draw. Changing the pitches alone won’t help. You have to change the whole mindset.”
What it fails to highlight is Maharashtra’s tactics. Despite a commanding first-innings score, they batted on for two and a half days and made sure UP never had a chance of getting points even on account of a first-innings lead, leave alone a result. UP captain Suresh Raina and bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad cried foul over their opposition’s exasperating methods and the need for some action against such motives. Did the BCCI, so quick to unleash a pre-season directive, take any action? No, is the definitive answer.
“It is easy to draw conclusions from one or two games. Instead we should look at the whole picture,” said former Test cricketer Sanjay Bangar and recently retired Railways player. “It has to be considered that the number of matches has gone up. Some teams only played five matches in one season, this year all teams have played more games. In that light, if one out of three matches is giving you a result that is a good percentage.”
“Also, you have to consider that Indian cricket has a tradition of slow wickets, with spin always the preferred mode of attack. Today, the directive is to prepare grassy wickets for domestic competitions. Somewhere a balance needs to be found,” he added.
“The basic problem is that you cannot alter pitches all across the country,” Dahiya said. “What you can do, however, is identify centres that have a history of churning out draws, and either penalize them or invest for better wickets there.”
“Dead and lifeless pitches also bring another factor to the fore, and that is disparity between any two teams,” he added. “Why will a team, with three spinners as their frontline attack, make pitches not suited for their bowlers? Some teams are not strong enough to ever win the Ranji Trophy or even progress to the next group. For them, it is a matter of survival, with a first-innings lead an easy mode to garner enough points. Some teams even use this method for knock-outs qualification.”
Equality in competition has never been more essential for cricket, with so many one-sided matches on the international scene sapping fans’ energy. On the domestic front, things continue to slip beneath the radar. This year’s Ranji final too ended on a sombre note. Not for 40-time champions Mumbai, but for Saurashtra, who had made their first final in 76 years.
As the runners-up failed to come to terms with the bounce at Wankhede Stadium, their one batsman of international repute who could have made a difference, Cheteshwar Pujara, sat miles away in Dharamsala, twiddling his thumbs. The BCCI’s stubborn stance in not releasing him from national duty to play in the showpiece final hollowed out their honest attempts to spruce up the Ranji Trophy. The words “lack of intent” never held more meaning.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.