Ranji teams will play at neutral venues this season with the BCCI deciding to end the menace of doctored pitches that has riddled the country’s premier domestic tournament for years. But Vishal Menon discovers that logistical hassles mean the board’s radical venture has few takers, especially at a time when the Test team is making the most of home advantage in their own backyard.
IN THE build-up to the Ranji season, a state association in North India decided to hire a nutritionist. He’s already been fired though. The idea behind this addition to their support staff, according to the association chief, was to ensure that his players get a diet best-suited to deal with the challenges of a hectic domestic season. But now with the team no longer set to play a match on home soil, they suddenly had no use for him. They’ve instead decided to stick to their usual caterers and given them a free hand to decide the menu. If anything they’ve been told, “Khila do chhole bhature…”
Another team in the west of the country, meanwhile, has had to part ways with their physio after his constant requests for a medicine table to cope with the demands of the hectic travel was turned down. “How will I tend to injuries on the road without one? And if tomorrow the team’s chances are affected because of an injury or two it’s my head on the line,” he’s learnt to have said before putting down his papers.
The Ranji Trophy is all set to take a bold dive into the unknown this season with the BCCI having decided to bring in neutral venues for all matches. To say that a majority of the state associations in the land are approaching the season with suspicion would be an understatement. For, in most circles the BCCI’s radical initiative is being viewed with derision. The logistics aside, not many associations seem to see the logic in this dramatic move. For some, it’s an insipid shot in the dark.
Veteran administrator Niranjan Shah is one of the loudest voices of dissent. “Iska kya fayda hain? (What’s the point of this move)?” he asks. The former BCCI secretary is even more scathing of the Board’s intentions of doing away with the inherent home advantage. “Which team would not want to bank on home advantage? Even foreign teams have done it. So what’s wrong in it? Consequently, in India, if we have a turning wicket, the onus lies on visiting teams to adapt and learn to play on such wickets,” he notes. Shah has a point.
There is a tinge of irony in the fact that the board chose to do away with ‘home advantage’ following a season where they put forth the most ‘favourable’ conditions for their team in recent history. Two pitches that had the hapless South Africans fuming and one that was rated ‘poor’ by the ICC.
Shah’s not done. He poses an even more poignant query.
“Could Ravindra Jadeja have orchestrated his return to the Indian Test squad if he had not picked up so many wickets on those turning tracks during the last domestic season?”
For the uninitiated, Shah was referring to Jadeja’s 37-wicket haul in the three home games at Rajkot last year — a freakish streak that expedited his return to Indian Test squad against the Proteas. It’s a fair taunt. If Jadeja and Pujara are winning matches for India on the same kind of wickets that they scored runs and took wickets on to get to this level, then what sense does it make to seemingly bell the cat now?
Jadeja’s Ranji team, Saurashtra, has always been an irresistible force at home. On dusty brown carpets in Rajkot, they would steamroll the opposition teams with ease. The proverbial home advantage is something they have exploited to the hilt, season after season. It therefore does not come as a surprise why most view Saurashtra’s success in Ranji Trophy with the usual cynical smirk.
You can’t fault the BCCI for wanting to do away with the farcical ‘my bat, my rules’ scenario that often gets played out at certain venues in particular during a Ranji season when points are at a premium. But if ridding Indian cricket of the malaise of ‘home advantage’ is the rationale behind the neutral venues idea then how would they justify the brazen call for it when an international team lands here for a Test series?
Loss of fan base
Karanataka coach J Arun Kumar hopes BCCI doesn’t extend this experiment beyond the upcoming season. “It is a known fact that most teams in Ranji rely on the inherent home advantage. Why would you want to do away with that?” He opines that big teams such as Karnataka, Delhi and Mumbai have traditionally had a robust cricketing culture, augmented by hardcore fan bases. For instance, a person would come to watch their hero or an exceptional young talent, whom locals can relate with. In Bengaluru and Hubbali, people would flock the stadium to catch a glimpse of a Robin Uthappa, a Manish Pandey or even a Vinay Kumar. The Karnataka coach says the new experiment negates this concept. “Why will a person in Hubbali be interested in watching a Tripura versus Services game?” he asks.
Barely a week before Karnataka’s season opener, Arun Kumar’s team is caught in a logistical limbo. Chennai, scheduled to host his side in their opening fixture against Jharkhand, have pulled out citing the ongoing Cauvery water dispute. The BCCI is yet to announce an alternate venue, but this episode has already scuttled the travel plans of the former Ranji champions. “It is unsettling for my team. This is not the kind of distraction we were looking for at the start of the season. At this point, we don’t know the venue for our opening Ranji game,” Arun Kumar says.
Chhattisgarh captain Mohammad Kaif reckons the board’s move is pragmatic, especially after factoring in the one-sided results that have unfolded in the previous seasons. “I am personally not in favour of neutral venues. But seeing the kind of matches that were played out last season, the BCCI was left with little choice. Seeing 20 wickets fall on a single day is not a good sign…Time and again we have seen home teams making unprepared tracks to push for an outright win,” Kaif explains.
But Shah has a counter-view to Kaif’s arguments. The SCA secretary says there is a fundamental difference between a spin-friendly track and an unprepared wicket. “A spin-friendly track does not essentially mean it is an unprepared track. There is a difference between the two. Even a traditional spin-friendly track can be sporting and foster good cricket,” Shah asserts.
To put things in perspective, as many as nine games played in the last Ranji season were wrapped up in just two days, while seventeen ended in three days as teams flexed their muscle at home. According to the board, giving the curators a free-hand is the only way to eradicate the menace.
“You can only make curators accountable when you give them a free hand. It can be only possible if there is a neutral venue. If you really want to improve the quality then one has to experiment, or else like every year teams will be doing the same thing. It was my idea and even Sourav Ganguly (chairman of the BCCI’s technical committee) and others have agreed to it,” says BCCI president Anurag Thakur.
But the fact that they have chosen to turn the Ranji Trophy schedule on its head is however an indictment of the Pitches and Grounds Committee—a five-member team that would travel to all different venues to monitor the state of pitches. This move only embellishes the abject failure of that committee.
Even the neutrality is suspect and slightly exaggerated. Removing the so-called nexus between a captain and his home ground curator out of the equation does not mean every pitch that is prepared during the Ranji season over the next four months will be made without any bias. In some cases, the nature of the pitch could depend on the relationship between the host association and one of the associations involved in the match. And what happens if one team’s playing on the home ground of another team from their group with both vying for a spot in the knockouts? Where does a curator’s loyalties lie then?
That Saurashtra get picked on every time the issue of home advantage comes up for discussion doesn’t sit too well with retired domestic scion, Sitanshu Kotak. What irks him even more is that even some of the eyebrow-raising feats of Pujara and Jadeja get sniggered upon and linked to the pitches that get offered on a platter to them in Rajkot.
“Just look at our record in the last season. We could not have finished as runner’s up based on our performances at home. Like other teams, we played four home games,” he says. Of the 11 games that Saurashtra had featured in, six were played away. In these six games, Kotak’s team managed to accrue five outright wins. He recalls with relish one particular away game — against Services in Delhi which they won.
Services had their noses in front in that gripping encounter, thanks to back-to-back tons from Rajat Paliwal. In the end, Saurashtra managed to chase down an improbable 302 on the final day. The highlight for the visitors was the skilful display of swing bowling from their left-arm pacer Jaydev Unadkat.
The crazy schedule will see teams crisscrossing the country and for the players it would be akin to a Bharat Darshan of epic proportions only in cricketing gear. Ideally, teams would play close to four games at home.
But this season like other teams, Saurashtra too will be living out of a suitcase for the next two months. Their campaign begins against Rajasthan in Chennai, from where they will move to Hyderabad to play Orissa, and then to Vizianagaram. From South they will shift their base to the east: in Kolkata and then Agartala. They then head north to Patiala. Last season’s runners up end their preliminary stage in Mumbai.
Having neutral venues will also bring along its fair share of travel and logistic hurdles. In previous seasons, there were instances when a team would play back-to-back matches at home. This would give an injured player ample time to recuperate. In the new season, teams will be constantly on the move for two months.
Kotak, though, played down such fears. “No, I don’t think travel will be an issue. We are thorough professionals, and will adapt.”
Former Assam coach Sanath Kumar, however, was more forthcoming. He reckons the constant travel can drain out even the best of players. “Since they don’t have games at their home venues, they are virtually cut off from their fans. This will not give them a break or a chance to recover from an injury or a niggle. The schedule is designed in such a manner that there are only three or four days off in between games. In essence, there is very little recovery time for players,” Kumar says.
Apart from the travel, breaking through the logistic quagmire will be another major hurdle. Most players will be playing at venues where they have never played before. For instance, Mumbai captain Aditya Tare will be playing for the first time in Lahli, in Haryana, when Mumbai begin their campaign against Tamil Nadu next week. Not just Lahli, Tare has also not played in Raipur and some of the smaller venues down South where Mumbai are scheduled to play later this season.
Staging matches in such remote locations have their inherent pitfalls. “Imagine you have a match in Valsad. A team lands in Mumbai, and then has to undertake a 5-hour journey by bus. Adding a bus journey to the constant air travel can be taxing for the players,” Kumar adds.
Second shot at neutrality
It’s not the first time either the BCCI have tried this out to add a bit of spice to the Ranji Trophy. They held all the knockout matches in the 2008-09 season at neutral venues. But then shelved the idea for good.
The BCCI did hold a captains and coaches conclave earlier this year to discuss the radical move. But one seasoned Ranji captain reveals that his presence there was pretty much a formality. For, when he did approach a senior BCCI official to express his opposition to the idea, he was shot down rather rudely.
“Theek hai. Phir IPL mat khelo,” he claims to have been told.