Domestic revamp shows the BCCI is trying
As the BCCI is on the anvil of making yet another alteration to the domestic structure, it is interesting to look back upon the various formats under which the Ranji Trophy was played.
Since the inception of Ranji Trophy in 1934, the teams were divided into four zones - North, West, South and East, based on their geographical location. Central Zone became the fifth Zone in 1952-53. Until 1969-70 only one team used to qualify from the zonal league stage for the knock out phase. From '70-71, two teams from each zone qualified for the knock-out phase.
During those years, no need was felt by cricket administrators to change formats as cricket was restricted to major metros of India and regions in western India, and one could notice large number of Indian players from these teams. This was also a period where university cricket and league amongst employer teams were given as much importance as a Ranji match.
Compare the highest number of runs scored in the Ranji Trophy - Wasim Jaffer who has 8269 runs - to the leading run-scorer in county cricket - Charles Mead with a whopping 46,268. Does it mean that the highest run-scorer in England was superior in run-making abilities than that of India's top-scorer? The answer would be no. It is based purely on the basis of the number of matches a county cricketer plays compared to a Ranji Trophy cricketer. Hence it has always been felt that players need to play more first-class matches to hone their skills, temperament and responses to match situations.
Take the case of Australia's Sheffield Shield, wherein only five teams participate and the number of first-class matches are limited; but one also need to look at the number of Australian domestic and international players who are absorbed by English counties and history shows that they have become far better players playing in the county circuit. Greats from West Indies such as Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd and Malcolm Marshall all used county cricket for achieving expertise in their skills.
In the Ranji Trophy up to 1996, you got to play a minimum of four matches, form and fitness permitting which roughly ended up in a max of six innings as most matches ended in draws. Thus the quality of valuing your wicket/putting a price tag or making it count was the norm. Players knew that they had to make an immediate impact in limited opportunities to either stabilise their careers or make progress. Thus for most players, notably from weaker states, a season would end pretty soon and their only aim was to make it to the Duleep Trophy side.
One of the prime examples in the recent past is the example of Mukund Parmar from Gujarat. His team rarely qualified for the knock out stage in the one or two-team qualifying format from West Zone. He used to consistently perform against much stronger teams, like Mumbai. The ensured that he got to the Duleep Trophy squad but since he had to compete with batsmen from Mumbai, Maharashtra and Baroda who probably got more matches, he rarely got to display his talent at the zonal level.
Somewhere around 1990, batting points and bowling points were introduced with an intention to make games fast paced and result oriented. But to my mind, a lot of matches towards the final stages of the zonal league phase ended up being corrupted, wherein two captains and their teams acted in connivance to suit both teams' interest. This batting and bowling points system was rightly discontinued by the BCCI which managed to arrest moral degradation of Indian domestic circuit.
From 1996-97 up to around 2001-02, the Super League format was introduced wherein three top teams from each zone qualified to play in super league. These 15 teams were then split in three groups of five teams each. The two top teams from each group qualified for the knock-out stages of the tournament.
With the Super League format, the potential to play more Ranji matches increased and a regular domestic player started to get higher number of matches, i.e., if a team qualified for the Super League a player would have played a minimum of eight matches. Now eight matches is a sufficient enough number of matches for a player to recover from loss of form or return from injuries after a short lay off and it also meant that the player could take failure in his stride as opposed to playing in the pre 1996-97 era wherein it was a make-or-break situation in each outing. Even though the number of matches increased, most often the matches up to the Super League stage were not a battle of equals. You could still come across at least one weak team in league and one weak team in the Super League where someone could make amends for his failures against stronger opposition. Thus the quantity of competition increased but evenness of the contest up to knock-out stage could not be ensured.
We have since shifted to the Elite and Plate format since 2002-03. This to my mind made the domestic calendar more competitive with battles among evenly matched teams, proper points system with promotion and relegation. The format has ensured that even if a team started poorly it could recover in the latter half of the season due to the point system. Promotion and relegation threat ensured that all teams came into a season with purpose. The quality of cricket improved dramatically and it also coincided with one of the best phases for Indian cricket, thereby proving that the tough grind of domestic cricket can produce more effective players at international level. In this period the BCCI also became more pro-active and started taking views of captains and coaches of all teams at the end of the season, at least bi-annually. These meetings were headed by the then Technical Committee member Sunil Gavaskar. I vouch that the voice of domestic cricket was heard in the corridors of the BCCI headquarters.
However, compared to the Super League format, in the Elite and Plate format the average domestic teams in the Plate division ended up just playing five league matches which meant that these players were playing very little first-class cricket.
As the Technical Committee proposes to revamp the domestic structure with a three tier format, wherein 27 teams are divided into nine teams in each group, the number of minimum matches for all participating teams will be eight. It means that players from weaker states will get to play equal number of matches as compared to players from stronger states irrespective of the team's performance.
It also means that since the division into three groups of nine would be based on the points standing of Elite and Plate teams in the 2011-12 season that the evenness of the contest will continue. The points system for the Elite and Plate format also has been, largely, retained. The promotion and relegation would also ensure that all teams participate with a purpose of either progressing to the knock-out stage or to the next group, or retaining their position in their present group.
Let's accept the fact that the BCCI, through its Technical Committee, is trying to balance address and safeguard the interest of 27 domestic teams in all fairness, with a view to producing better players. The biggest beneficiaries will be players from J&K, Tripura, Services, Vidarbha and Jharkhand who have rarely qualified for the knock-out stage of the Ranji Trophy. For which players from these teams shall be thankful to the current Technical Committee.
The entire exercise of the format evaluation has been undertaken due to the Indian team's consecutive eight losses overseas in Test matches. The real issue to address this problem would be to play on uncovered wickets in the Ranji Trophy matches for enhancing players' skills in order to present playing under challenging conditions, which I am sure will face stiff resistance from teams who are not willing to come out of their comfort zones and their players prefer to remain flat track bullies.
More about Sanjay Bangar
One of the most experienced active cricketers on the first-class circuit, Sanjay Bangar is a two-time Ranji Trophy – in 2001-02 and in 2004-05, when he led the side – and Irani Trophy winner with Railways. He played 12 Tests and 15 ODIs for India and was part of famous victories from 2001-2003.
- + Series victory over Australia a result of thorough planning
- + The issue of over-age players in junior cricket is rampant
- + The factors that lead to a cricketer's retirement
- + Pujara a product of domestic success
- + Railways won't be overawed by Tendulkar's Mumbai
- + Railways out to create a home away from home
- + An uncluttered mind makes a big difference in sport
- + Coaching isn't just about opening an academy
- + The importance of team-building exercises