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The changing geography of Ranji Trophy winners

  • Growing commercialization and changes in formats and rules are broadening the scope of contenders in the premier domestic cricket competition
  • Since 2008-09, as many as 26 teams have made it to the quarter-finals, 18 to the semis, 11 to the finals and there have been five winners

From coaching a young cricketing nation and helping it win the biggest title on the world stage to coaching one of the 37 teams in a domestic competition is a few steps down for a professional. However, if Dav Whatmore, a Sri Lanka-born Australian cricketer and coach, can pull off with Kerala in this year’s Ranji Trophy what he pulled off with Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup, sporting history will remember.

Kerala is one of the four teams contesting the semi-finals of the premier domestic cricket competition in India, which began on Thursday. Kerala has never won the Ranji Trophy. Neither has Saurashtra, another semi-finalist. In a competition that dates back to 1934-35, if there was ever a time for a team to breakout as a first-time winner, it is now.

Over the last two decades, smaller states have increasingly challenged the hegemony of urban-centric cricketing strongholds such as Mumbai, Karnataka, and Delhi, because of the rapid commercialization of Indian cricket. The first phase of commercialization came in the 1990s. The second phase came in 2008 with the launch of the city franchise-based Indian Premier League (IPL), which led to an explosive spurt in the demand for quality Indian players.

The commercialization has trickled down to Ranji Trophy. One measure of this is the number of new title winners. The first 15 years of the competition threw up eight new winners, while all of the next 50 years saw just six new winners. In the following 18 years, from 2001 onwards, there have been five new winners, the latest being Vidarbha last year (charts 1 and 2).

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Vidarbha is the third semi-finalist this year and their surge embodies several ways in which the approach to Ranji Trophy, of both the governing body and teams, has evolved. One of these is building for a title run and teams buying players from other states, or ‘professionals’ as they are termed. Teams can draft up to three professionals and they have actively exercised this option.

For example, in 2015, Vidarbha brought in opening batsman Wasim Jaffer—all of 40 years now and the leading run-getter in the history of Ranji Trophy—from Mumbai in 2015. Even this year, Jaffer is the leading run-getter for Vidarbha and the second-highest in the tournament. Last year, Vidarbha also brought in coach Chandrakant Pandit, who had previously seen title success with Mumbai, and won the title. Similarly, Kerala roped in Whatmore, who has coached Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe, last season.

Another change that has accelerated the diversification beyond the traditional urban centres has been a format change. The 2018-19 season is the largest Ranji Trophy season, with 37 teams in the fray, following the addition of Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Puducherry, Sikkim and Uttarakhand in mid-2018.

Till the turn of the century, Ranji Trophy followed a zonal format, which restricted lesser sides in a zone. Now, it’s mixed in nature and Punjab, Kerala, and Bengal can all square off in the same group. Since 2008-09, top-performers among second tier teams were allowed to participate in the knock-out rounds for the title, leading to greater diversity of teams in the quarter-final shoot-outs. This year, for example, five quarter-finalists came from the top tier, two from the second tier (Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) and one from the lower third tier of competition (Uttarakhand).

Since 2008-09, as many as 26 teams have made it to the quarter-finals, 18 to the semis, 11 to the finals and there have been five winners. Mumbai and Karnataka are still making their presence felt. They have reached the quarter-finals in 10 of the 11 years and even captured six titles.

Beyond them, and Tamil Nadu to a lesser extent, the bulge in the middle is becoming bigger. There are six states tied with four appearances in the quarter-finals during this 11-year period, with Saurashtra and Vidarbha being the most recent additions (chart 3).

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Despite the introduction of neutral ground curators, batting remains the bigger ingredient in Ranji Trophy success. This is partly because of the four-day format and a point scoring system that rewards a first-innings lead. Unlike Test cricket, Ranji Trophy is still plagued by draws. In 2008-09, only 39% of matches in the top tier yielded a result. This year, it is 49%. The best teams pull their batting weight (chart 4).

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There are exceptions such as Kerala this year, which has pulled more by its bowling strength. Whatmore’s Instagram page is a kaleidoscope of what an experience like this can be: selfies with a winning team, star batsman Sanju Samson cutting a birthday cake, the wedding of pace bowler Sandeep Warrier, a seafood spread, gym and training ground, and Pongal wishes, among other things. How he would like Kerala’s first Ranji Trophy there.

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