Whisper it, but as a new Ranji Trophy season begins there is reason to believe that India’s premier first-class tournament could be on the verge of something exciting.
Domestic cricket is stagnating, and there is hardly and spectator turnout for Ranji, Deodhar, Duleep, Vijay Hazare and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy fixtures. In the era of the IPL there is plenty of concern about the health of first-class cricket, and of course there is the form of the national team which has lost eight successive overseas Test matches. The Indian team is in a state of transition, and there is concern that the next generation of cricketers isn’t up to the mark. Against this backdrop, the structural changes made by the BCCI during the offseason promise to enthuse life back into the Ranji Trophy which opens around the country on Friday.
This season, 27 Ranji Trophy teams have been divided into three groups of nine each. This is a positive move, because it encourages promotion more than before and the fact that teams will now play eight matches in the league phase - Plate League teams previously played as few as five matches per season – can only be good. More matches mean more opportunities for players and teams to regain ground in case they begin poorly. Under the new format the top three teams in each of the first two groups can make the knockouts, but even the bottom two teams, though not eligible for promotion, can make the knockout round. A level lower, the top two teams from the third group could also make it to the quarter-finals. This can only be seen as an exciting proposition compared to past seasons.
For far too long the Ranji Trophy has seen countless "wins"based on achieving a first-innings lead. Captains have often preferred to stall the opposition and rack up mammoth totals. Now with three additional points up for grabs instead of two for an outright win – and an extra point for a victory by ten wickets - there is hope that teams will ditch become more aggressive. This is slight, considering for how long teams have been used to functioning in one mode, but it is hope nevertheless.
Adding a fifth day to the quarter-finals and semi-finals and a sixth to the final could also lend the knockout stage some much-needed energy. Now the first-innings lead may not necessarily be enough for teams to progress. In a four-day match the team that concedes the lead has a slim chance of clawing back, but now with an additional day the team on top cannot afford to opt for safety first. Where previously racking up a big score across two days gave teams a distinct advantage, the fact that there is a fifth day increases the chance of the team batting second overhauling the challenge.
Are the revamps to the domestic structure sufficient to revive the Ranji Trophy? Not entirely. For instance, would it not have been prudent to reduce the number of 27 teams to 15 to improve the first-class game? And surely the nature of domestic pitches must be changed to ensure an assembly line of players adept at scoring in varied conditions instead of slow turners or flat decks? Why can’t the BCCI scrap the Duleep and Deodhar Trophies and give more importance to first-class cricket which is ultimately the breeding ground for India players? These are questions that should have been answered.
Apart from the structural changes, the news that the first round of Ranji matches has star value lends this season supplementary allure. Sachin Tendulkar, whose last Ranji Trophy appearance was Mumbai's final win in 2008-09, and Zaheer Khan will be playing Mumbai’s season opener against Railways; In Ghaziabad, Virender Sehwag will captain a strong Delhi team that includes Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma against Uttar Pradesh who have Praveen Kumar leading their attack. VVS Laxman will skipper a Hyderabad side featuring Pragyan Ojha against a Harbhajan Singh-led Punjab in Mohali.
This has largely to do with the Test players wanting to get in some first-class practice before England arrive. But should it need a visiting team to get big-ticket players playing Ranji cricket?
A major reason for the lack of interest in the Ranji Trophy is that the Test players almost never play in it. The 13 players who played Test cricket for India on the tour of Australia played a total of five Ranji Trophy matches between them last season. Ten did not play at all. Some have not played for years. This only dilutes the quality of domestic cricket. Zaheer played two matches last season in a bid to prove his fitness ahead of the tour of Australia. Prior to that, he last turned out for Mumbai in December 2009. Since December 2005, Zaheer has played seven Ranji Trophy games.
Laxman’s last domestic first-class match was in December 2009. MS Dhoni hasn’t played for Jharkhand since March 2005. Since 2002-03, Sehwag has played a total of eight Ranji matches for Delhi. His India and Delhi opening partner, Gambhir has turned out for Delhi just once since he captained them to the Ranji title in January 2008 and made himself a fixture in India’s Test team.
The matter is not limited to the seniors. Kohli last showed up for Delhi in a Ranji Trophy match in December 2010. To see the last time his team-mate Ishant did that, rewind 11 months earlier. R Ashwin has not played for Tamil Nadu since becoming a regular in India’s limited-overs outfit during the 2011 World Cup. Umesh Yadav did not play a single Ranji match last season. The Ranji Trophy would be a greater tournament with the participation of these players.
We can sit and nitpick and we can get on with things. For now, let us look at the 2012-13 season and hope it gives India’s most prestigious domestic tournament some much-needed appeal.