“Bhai, home pitch, home pitch bolte hain, lekin dekho na, humney Rajkot mey first innings mey 600 ke upar maara. Voh team ludak gaye jaldi, toh bhai yeh bhayankar spinning track kaise ho sakta hai?!” Sitanshu Kotak, the stonewalling batsman in his time, now Saurashtra’s coach, chuckles on the team’s thumping innings-victory over Jammu & Kashmir.
Ranji Trophy has returned to home-and-away system after disastrously flirting with neutral venues last season. It’s just been two rounds so far, and the results haven’t shown any trend favouring home teams. Yes, Saurashtra rode on Ravindra Jadeja’s double-ton and 7-wicket match haul to overwhelm J&K but they also did crush Haryana in Haryana in their first game.
Tamil Nadu even conceded the first-innings lead to Andhra at home. So did Mumbai to Tamil Nadu, as it turned out in the second round. Uttar Pradesh has lost at home, and so few other teams have given away the lead while hosting.
“The best thing that gives hope about this season so far has been the neutral curators,” says L Balaji, former India bowler and the current bowling coach of Tamil Nadu. Chepauk rolled out a good true pitch for the first game against Andhra who capitalised through Bodapati Sumanth and co.
The Indian cricket board have, in theory, done a good thing with the neutral curators. They are rolling out different neutral curator for every game so that no great bias seeps through by association with a team. The observer works with the local curators to ensure a decent pitch is produced. That’s the hope and the plan.
In Balaji’s telling, even if it doesn’t erase home-bias completely it will at least take care that no obvious over-the-top sabotage takes place. “The neutral curators would, I think, take care that doctoring of the pitches doesn’t take place in different venues. There would be some home advantage no doubt – that’s too difficult to take away – but if they can make sure pitches aren’t doctored, they would be doing a good job,” he says.
It’s a sentiment that Sanath Kumar, Andhra’s coach, agrees with. “Take the Chepauk pitch in our first game in Tamil Nadu. It was a good true pitch and we did well, fought hard to get the lead. Even the pitch we got in Baroda was pretty decent track – there was no home bias, and again we did well.”
Parthiv Patel, Gujarat’s captain, too believes the neutral curators system might just work. “Pitches are very good, and it’s great to see neutral curators working with local ones, and producing decent tracks.” Gujarat have won both their matches at home, with performances from Piyush Chawla, and also from the seamers.
It remains to be seen how it will all play out in crunch situations when the fate of a team’s Ranji campaign hangs on one particular match – the temptation to load up the surface in their favour would be difficult to negate.
Why should one not do that, anyway? asks Kotak. “The challenge in playing Ranji Trophy is to travel to different venues, and face up the challenge put up by the home team, and overcome that. A turning track at one venue, a grassy pitch at other – and then see who is the best team. But I understand the concern that pitches shouldn’t be favour the home team too much but it also comes down to the approaches of the batsmen these days,” he says.
Kotak, who had once memorably said – ‘Bore toh kiya lekin kaam toh hua na’ after yet another marathon knock, reckons T20 cricket has changed the batsmen completely. He takes the example of couple of seasons back when Saurashtra produced turners to suit Jadeja and opposition teams crumbled. “Which team these days shows application to bat on like how it used to be in those days? Things have changed. People kept complaining about those pitches but let me tell you if there were good batsmen who have the patience and skill against spin, they would not have been bowled out so cheaply everytime. These days, patience is absent. Even the 600-odd we made this season, we went at 5 runs per over!” he exclaims almost in disbelief. “J&K batsmen kept swinging away, and they got bowled out twice. If matches would end in say 4 days in our time, it now finishes in 2 days – not always because of the pitch but because the batsmen have changed.”
Balaji concurs with the view though he sees it as an evolution, and awaits the natural course correction that young batsmen would make. “You can’t complain about it. Yes, the new generation has grown on T20 – they find it attractive, and it has gone inside their system but that’s the way game has evolved worldwide. The game has changed, batsmen have changed, mindset is different – the game is always moving forward these days. As long as the curators in our Ranji Trophy can give a decent pitch and let the players find their own way, we should be fine.”
Sanath Kumar, Andhra’s coach, makes a valuable point about how the experience of playing in neutral venues last year has toughened up teams. At least Andhra. “The way last year went, we were always playing away and I think that has helped teams to be more open – and less fearful about pitches. The focus isn’t so much now on the tracks. They have gone and played on pitches completely out of their control the whole season and don’t obsess about pitches as a result I think.”