Ranji Trophy 2016-17: Neutral venues can’t pitch it right

Despite BCCI’s new initiative, league games continue to get shorter as teams fight for spots in the knock-outs.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Kolkata | Updated: December 1, 2016 11:14 am
ranji759 In the penultimate league round of this Ranji season, one game (Odisha vs Maharashtra) ended inside two days, and another two games look like folding up on Thursday — the third day. (Source: File)

No television coverage, harrowing commute problems for teams to remote destinations, apathy of the host associations at some venues in terms of facilities, lack of crowds are some of the woes ailing this Ranji Trophy season. Now we have another entrant: Dicey pitches. This one should hurt a bit more as Ranji went neutral this year precisely to avoid such pitches. 20 wickets fell at Dhanbad on the opening day (33 in two days) in the game between Andhra and Goa; Odisha secured an innings victory over Maharashtra in two days in Wayanad; and in the last round, Baroda-Bengal game didn’t go to third day.

The tale of pitches is a curious case: if there is no home team playing there shouldn’t be any bias-pressure for the host venues to manufacture tracks. Ideally, the curators should have the freedom to create sporting tracks. However, the absence of the home team has instead given way to apathy where some host associations haven’t cared enough about the state of pitches.

The Railway stadium in Dhanbad, India’s coal capital, has been an anonymous presence in Indian cricket even when it has hosted Ranji games for its state team Jharkhand but it has now taken a darker turn. Over the last two days, as Andhra and Goa have been playing their Group C final round fixture at the nondescript venue, Dhanbad has been noted for all the wrong reasons.

Both teams were shot out on the opening day with the spinners taking 19 of them. Bhargav Bhatt, a left-arm spinner, and B Siddharth, an offie, combined well to account for 10 Goa wickets after Andhra won the toss and elected to field. Goa were 115 all out in 52.4 overs. No one got into thirties.

Andhra’s joy turned out to be short-lived as they folded for 159 in their reply with left-arm spinner Shadab Jakati taking 8/53 in 17.3 overs. Wickets continued to tumble on the second day as well with Goa folding up for 276 in their second innings and three Andhra spinners sharing seven scalps between them. Andhra finished the day on 99/3 in their second innings – 33 wickets in two days.

If it was excessive spin in Dhanbad, it was seamers who ruled the roost down South in Wayanad where Odisha won by an innings against Maharashtra inside two days.

It’s not as if Dhanbad curators intentionally produced a rank-turner but without home-team stakes in it, they haven’t really done full justice in preparation. The track had a decent grass covering at the top but it proved deceptive. The Andhra coach Sanath Kumar summed up the issue: “It was completely dry beneath (the top layer) and it was breaking. So it helped spinners,” he told The Indian Express. “It wasn’t uneven but it was a turner.” His Goa counterpart Prakash Mayekar was surprised by how it played out. “I can’t say it’s a sporting wicket. It was deceptive. There’s fair amount of grass on the pitch and nobody thought it would turn so much, especially off certain areas.”

Another 2-day affair at Lahli

In the previous round, the Baroda-Bengal game at Lahli finished in two days with both teams posting double-figure totals in their respective first innings. Bengal coach Sairaj Bahutule described the pitch a little “underprepared”, while captain Manoj Tiwary rued uneven bounce. Bahutule also said that below par pitches on neutral venues didn’t offer a good advertisement for Indian domestic cricket. The Ranji Trophy’s neutral venue switch is a direct fall out some state associations shamelessly exploiting home advantage last season and was aimed at restoring the balance between bat and ball.

Nine three-day finishes so far and two two-day affairs suggest improvement, but some venues like Eden Gardens (all four matches have ended inside three days) and Lahli (one two-day finish and a three-day finish) have extended a big favour of the bowlers. Also, toss has played a huge role on numerous occasions.

“Ideally you want the right balance between bat and ball – a track like Mohali, where India and England played the third Test. But easier said than done. It would be difficult even for Mohali to prepare such a cricket pitch every time. But yes, toss has proved to be very important in a lot of matches this season, which shouldn’t have been the case. But I don’t have any complaint. As a cricketer you are supposed to adapt,” Saurashtra coach Sitanshu Kotak told this paper.

Four spinners — Shahbaz Nadeem, K Monish, Jalaj Saxena and Akshay Wakhare – had featured in the list of top five wicket-takers last season. Assam medium pacer Krishna Das was the odd man out.

Maharashtra seamer Anupam Sanklecha has been most successful so far this term with 40 wickets from seven matches. Rajasthan medium-fast bowler Pankaj Singh is currently placed third with 36 scalps. Even in the ongoing round, 11 low-scoring matches confirm batsmen’s struggles.

Vidarbha coach Paras Mhambrey differed with the sentiment as he sought to stress that pitches weren’t underprepared deliberately this year.

“Teams are playing on different types of pitches this time and this is the beauty of the game. This is how it should be. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the quality of pitches. Last year we had been having underprepared wickets. This is not the case this year. We are getting challenging wickets, making things exciting. You still can score runs. Rishabh Pant has scored so many runs, bowlers are picking wickets – so everyone has something or other. It’s challenging and it’s a test of technique. We are playing against Delhi at the moment and the pitch in Chennai has fantastic bounce. For a long time I don’t think I have seen this kind of bounce on any Indian wicket,” he said.

It’s just not the pitches of course but the travel to remote places that is beginning to take a toll on the players. A Rajasthan player had spoken about the two-hour travel from the ground at Vizianagaram to the team hotel in Visakhapatnam. “It felt like a yatra.”

Sanath Kumar, Andhra’s coach also complained about the accessibility to smaller centres. “The BCCI shouldn’t go for smaller venues, because the approach to the venues should be easier. Places like here (Dhanbad) — we travel by train, then bus. Now after playing here we will be travelling by bus to Ranchi, then from Ranchi to Delhi by flight and then another flight from Delhi to Lucknow. This can be very taxing. I have never travelled so much in my life for any Ranji Trophy game.”