When Rahul Dravid spoke last year about the need for neutral venues after he was disappointed by the pitch tampering done by the home associations to suit their teams, he wouldn’t have thought about the apathetic side-effect. This Ranji Trophy season was supposed to be a fresh start with the Indian cricket board trying out neutral venues for all the games but things are turning dire, and we are only in the third round of games. Teams have played away from home for years now but when they are on road non stop for all their games, then problems crop up. Some of it is byproduct of this itinerary, but the major issue is of apathy.
The idea isn’t faulty entirely but the execution has been. Some state associations couldn’t have cared less. Some of the pitches have been poor, some full of runs, there has been a paucity of practice pitches, the dressing rooms have been a mess, and food quality has taken a hit elsewhere. 2016 seems to be the annus horribilis for BCCI. They have been probed, berated, and suggested structural changes by the Supreme Court. The Indian cricket team is doing a good job on the field but their state colleagues have been left to fend for themselves in a chaotic workplace environment.
“Aisa lag raha tha jaisey ek saal ke baad ground khula ho”. (Was as if they’d opened the ground after one year).
Players from the Rajasthan Ranji team were not amused – they were saddened actually, a bit shocked by the conditions as well, in Visakhapatnam, where they played Assam. Such reactions aren’t restricted to Rajasthan or their opponents Assam, but a general sense of apathy-fuelled misadministration seems to have spread to a few other venues this Ranji season. However, the contest for it-would-have-been-hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-real was won by an episode that involved a vada and a bonda.
Sunil Joshi, Assam’s coach, didn’t believe his ears when he heard the complaint from his players in Visakhapatnam. “They are asking us to eat just one vada, one bonda!” It was the end-of-the-day snack for players at around 5 pm. Some don’t eat much during tea breaks, and wait for the evening to get something decently filling before dinner. For those who are culinarily curious, Rishabh Pant tucked into a plate of noodles in the dressing-room balcony after his triple ton at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai.
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It’s best here to re-live the episode in Joshi’s words. “They were giving one vada, one bonda! How can you have restrictions on players saying you can have just one vada, two vada?” His tone had incredulousness, that so-sad-it’s-funny humour, and a touch of anger. I was told someone in the local association had taken the call .., whatever, how can you give b@#$%^ one vada, two vada, man?!”
Joshi says he told the local liaison that if sufficient food isn’t there, “We would give you money, please go and buy from outside and serve the players”. The issue seems to have been sorted out after that day though, and Joshi understandably wasn’t in a mood to dwell longer on the vada situation.
He did share what he had told the Rajasthan camp then. “Yeh kya hai bhai? Yeh kya ration mey de rahe hain – ek vada, ek bonda?
HITCH IN THE PITCH
A Rajasthan player laughs when asked about the unsavoury episode. “Vada bonda chhodo, nothing was right at Visakhapatnam. It was as if they had opened the ground after one year. Not casualness, it was as if they weren’t ready at all.”
It wasn’t just the food but the dressing room too wasn’t in a fit state. “There were no sofas, nothing. It wasn’t ready to host a first-class game. The impression was that bad.”
Players were made to feel like trespassers who were hastily, and shabbily, accommodated on some unused ground.
Another Rajasthan player had this to say about the food situation. “I don’t want to say on food as whatever food we get is better than those people who struggle.” To be forced by sensitivity and decency to not talk about food says much. Pressed to share the details, he offered this: “Well, the quality of food – the kind of normal food you get in Ranji Trophy, that was missing.”
Luckily, not all venues seemed to have that problem. The Baroda game, players vouch, is being held well. “The food, the dressing room facilities are excellent. Right from start we feel like it’s a first-class match.”
In the end, that’s all these players are asking: ‘Let it at least feel like a first-class match.’
“This is a Ranji Trophy match, not some school game or something. We are not against neutral venues but at least choose venues which are ready to host, which are convenient for players, and which treat us decently,” a player said.
The main problem about Visakhapatnam wasn’t food and dressing room facilities, but the pitch of course. There was a report earlier this week in this paper on the issue but it’s perhaps best to summarise it here again. Preparation was on for the final ODI between New Zealand and India on October 29 to be held here. They were heavily watering the centre square – the ODI pitch was adjacent to the Ranji one – and the surface was quite damp even on the day of the game. The pitch was heavily watered and the soil not compact enough to hold a four-day game. On the third day, the track began to play up-and-down and 17 wickets fell for 120-odd runs. The players and Joshi were initially approached to get clarity on the pitch issue but the chats ended up throwing myriad other problems.
L Balaji, the former India player and currently, Tamil Nadu’s bowling coach, says he has experienced such stuff at the start of his career when they travelled to remote locations. He said Tamil Nadu haven’t quite faced food or dressing room troubles but there were other minor issues. Like the commute. The travel to Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh had a flight to Rohtak, and subsequent nine-hour cumbersome road-ride. “Nine hours on road weren’t exactly pleasurable,” Balaji deadpanned. “It’s okay I guess when I hear stories of other teams! You have to choose venues carefully – pick the ones with decent commute and if that’s not possible, at least ensure venues are properly ready to host. Let’s not devalue our Ranji Trophy, that’s the main thing I want to say here. Think and prepare smartly”.
Some planning would certainly have helped. Some of the troubles seems to have been following Assam and its beleaguered coach Joshi. Thumba is a suburb on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, and isn’t a remote place. In 1963, India fired its first rocket from here. Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai launched India’s space age from Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, and Thumba later became home to ISRO. They also seem to approach preparation for matches as rocket science, to use a Shastri-ism. The ground had just two practice strips, Joshi says, which meant teams couldn’t get their preferred morning training session. They had to swap on succeeding days. “That’s nothing,” Joshi says. “The run-up area was so sandy – white sand basically – that fast bowlers had to bowl off a shortened run-up during training days.”
The dressing rooms seem to be centres of neglect in many venues. Thumba was no better. “They were doing some wood-work and plastering!” Joshi says. “It wasn’t ready a day before the game. So, we don’t have enough practice pitches, run-up areas were bad, and dressing rooms weren’t ready.” From Vishakhapatnam to Thumba, from frying pan into the fire, Assam has had quite an eventful ride.
A Rajasthan player talked about the commute problems in Vazianagram, which sort of mirrors Balaji’s situation elsewhere, but it involves every-day travel. “That Vizianagaram ground also I don’t think we should be playing Ranji Trophy. It took an hour in the early morning to get to the ground and two hours in the evening to return. Three hours on the road when you are playing a four-day game gets difficult. We felt we were in some sort of yatra!”
The general sense of casualness has also meant delays creeping into games due to silly mistakes as well. Like at the CCI in Mumbai, in the first game between Haryana and Services, the second day’s play could only start afternoon as the groundstaff spilled water collected during over-night rain. It wasn’t raining in the morning but one member involved with the game said, it was a casual mistake – the kind you wouldn’t have seen if a home team was playing.”
Then there is that curious case of Haryana’s travails. This isn’t down to neutral venues or an egregious error by any local association but it manages to capture the occasional descent into farce of the domestic competition.
By the end of this Ranji season, the Haryana players can write a ‘backpackers guide’ to Indian domestic cricket. And it’s been just two rounds. They have already missed a flight, hitch-hiked a bus ride and five of them have shared a double room.
It all started with them reaching Ranchi to play Hyderabad, only to be told that the game has been moved to Jamshedpur. The reason, Ranchi was hosting the fourth India-New Zealand ODI and the ground needed to be prepared for the international game.
After the eight-wicket win, the happy bunch returned to the Ranchi airport, a not very comfortable road trip. A bomb scare resulted in a long delay and a tired team dozing off at the waiting lounge. Finally, after the security guards had given their okay, they were air-bound.
On landing in Kolkata, from where they were to board the plane to Guwahati for their next game, they realised their troubles were far from over. The connecting flight was missed and they were face-to-face with every traveler’s worst nightmare: Reaching a place at twilight with no hotel reservations. A flurry of calls from Haryana to Kolkata finally resulted in the team getting eight rooms in a hotel.
But before they hit bed, there was one more obstacle. They had to find an answer to one important question: How do they reach the hotel? Even on best of days, when the systems are in place, it’s not easy to transport a cricket team. Someone started hailing taxis, only to realise that they would need at least 20. The idea was dropped since the big heavy kit bags were not factored for.
At this point, the Haryana lads did what they usually do back home when in a fix – “jugaad”. “Ek muncipal bus driver ko set kiya aur bus ko charter bana liya,” says a smart one among them. It proved to be extremely cheap, mildly uncomfortable but truly memorable too. For many the night was spent sleeping on the hotel room floor. The season is still young, the competition isn’t really intense, the battle to win the Ranji hasn’t warmed up but the Haryana boys have “gone to the mattresses.”
The chaos seems to have also helped teams get smarter in some ways. From daily allowances to disbursing other arrangements, every association handles quite bit of money during the domestic season. Traditionally, it wasn’t much of a problem as the team would play home and away, but with the constant travel in this neutral-venue season this time, carrying cash has been an issue. The money could go up to 25 lakhs, and so some associations have worked out a solution. Haryana for example has given cash cards to the players so that they can load-up now and then. “We have an association with Yes Bank, and we have worked it out. Some other associations might have problems.”
NO SKIPPER FEEDBACK
Until last year, the domestic competition had a tradition of ‘captain’s report’ to match-referee where they raise issues, if any, with the umpires and such. Last May, though, it was decided that the captain’s report would be sent directly to the Indian cricket board – no official word came in but it was reported in the newspaper Mumbai Mirror that it was a fallout of a controversy erupting between a captain in the West Zone and an umpire. During the captains and coaches meeting in May, the captain informed that shortly after he had filed his report to the match referee, an umpire asked him to withdraw the complaint, and even allegedly said the player “would be taken care” of if the complaint wasn’t withdrawn.
This has led to a peculiar situation this season where the captains are unable to give feedback on umpires, or register some of their general ire, to the match referee. “We can only verbally share with some referees but without the report, there is nothing written. Not all captains are comfortable writing problems to the board, as yet,” says a coach of a Ranji team. “Especially, for a new idea like neutral-venues, you would need all sorts of feedbacks from captains and coaches, but the process is now not so straightforward”.
The last word on this domestic woes story, and the one that summarises it for us, should go to Joshi.
“The board has given enough money to the associations in the past, forget the recent court based issues. Why aren’t they spending on the players properly from their funds? And the bigger question is why hold this competition if it isn’t done properly? Why are you doing it for the sake of it? You decide the venue where infrastructure is good. That’s not asking for too much, right?”