The Indian cricket board’s plan to play Ranji games in neutral venues may have thrown up mixed opinions but its new president Anurag Thakur has defended the idea. Thakur told The Indian Express that the proposal will improve the quality of pitches in the premier first-class tournament by making curators more accountable, and will stop the Ranji teams from creating favourable home pitches.
Nine Ranji games ended within two days last season. Seventeen were wrapped up in three days as home advantage was pushed to the maximum by the various teams. The thought behind the push for neutral venues is that without the burden and pressure of producing pitches that favour home teams, the curators will have a free hand in creating sporting pitches, and as a result they can also be held accountable.
“You can only make curators accountable when you give them a free hand. It can be only possible if there is 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’s of no use. It was my idea and even Sourav Ganguly (chairman of the BCCI’s technical committee) and others agreed to it,” Thakur told The Indian Express.
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Thakur elaborated the board’s decision. “Why go on points every year? Why allow the teams to manipulate pitches for points? Having a neutral venue means there will no manipulation, and all teams will get an equal opportunity. There will be no complaint about the quality of the pitches. We all know the situation in domestic cricket,” Thakur said.
The proposal was met with varying opinions. Some former cricketers have moaned the end of first-class games in front of home fans, while some current players and coaches have said that the move would help prepare better pitches. The state associations have talked about the need for monetary compensation.
One of the biggest supporters of the idea was Rahul Dravid, who coached India A and U-19 teams last season. He had really strong words for the poor pitches, calling them a “waste of time, energy and money”.
“All around in the Ranji Trophy this year, the teams are producing, in my opinion, poor wickets. Square turners; matches are finishing in two or three days. I really don’t think it’s good for the health of Indian cricket; because if you think about it, it’s a waste of time, energy and money. The reason for the Ranji Trophy is not only to decide at the end who is the winner. That’s just one area of the Ranji Trophy. The other job is to develop and prepare cricketers for the international stage. And if we keep playing on bad wickets, we are not going to develop and produce good cricketers.”
He then pushed for the neutral venues. “A lot of people criticise and say Ranji Trophy (matches) should be (played) at home venues, but if teams are going to resort to doing these kinds of things then I think it’s better that the Ranji Trophy is at neutral venues, at least in the knockout stage. We need to start forcing teams to prepare good wickets,” Dravid had said last November.
There were understandable sighs about losing the experience of playing in front of supporting home audiences. Ajit Agarkar, a former India and Mumbai player, summed up the disappointment thus: “You have very few people watching Ranji Trophy and domestic cricket to begin with, so now if you have neutral venues, I don’t know if the crowds will show up. I’m not a big fan of playing all games in neutral venues. I have many fond memories of playing home matches for Mumbai. Being a Mumbaikar, I wanted to play at least a few games at home,” Agarkar said on June 1 this year.
Meanwhile some state associations had voiced their monetary concerns, apart from the crowd factor. Tamil Nadu Cricket Association secretary Kasi Viswanathan had shared his views with this newspaper. “We don’t mind playing our matches at neutral venues. But it will double the (overhead) cost. Every association gets Rs 1 lakh per day from the BCCI for hosting Ranji Trophy matches. If the proposed change is implemented, I hope the board will increase the amount.”
Some like Milind Rege, selector for the Mumbai Ranji team, have said instead of shifting to neutral venues, the board should punish the errant associations who indulge in pitch tampering. “My personal view is that the BCCI received feedbacks from match referees and based on that points should have been taken away from host associations for preparing dust bowls. Group league matches at neutral venues would barely attract a crow, let alone fans. It would negatively affect the tournament,” Rege told this newspaper.
Thakur is convinced that the neutral is the way to go, and would push for its implementation. Thakur said the curators would get ten days in between Ranji games. They will also get the ground two to three months before the start of the tournament to have enough time for preparation. “We have planned such a way that there will be ten days gap between two Ranji games so that pitches can be prepared. They will also be handed ground two or three months before the tournament. Now, prepare the pitches according to your wish.”