Cricket Conversations: What’s wrong with the Ranji?

(Note: this was a reporting assignment I had done a while back. Contains lot of general info, meant for laymen too)

By M.Ramakrishnan and Rahul Ravikumar

Chennai, Nov 30: It has been 68 years since India’s crown jewel of domestic tournaments was instated; a supposedly fitting answer to the English County Championship and the Sheffield Shield from Down Under. In this era of fast-paced and instant entertainment packaging in the form of star-studded T20s, does anyone really care about a four-day match between regional teams which groom the gen-next of India’s cricketers?

The stadiums are usually barren, pulling in crowds only giants like Sourav Ganguly or Sachin Tendulkar feature in the team’s lineup. The occasional talent scout, the proverbial family members and friends of a player or that ubiquitous species (as coined by an upcoming online journal) called Cricket Fanaticus Indiana end up being the saving grace for ‘spectatorship’ most of the time.

Add to it the flat tracks across the country, which almost always prove to a batsman’s happy hunting ground, otherwise known by a rather uninspiring sobriquet – dust bowls. They are most certainly one of the many problems plaguing the Ranji Trophy tournament, let alone Test cricket in general. Other major grouses include the points system, which hasn’t seen much of an overhaul for a long time, the ball being used in play and attitude of the players in general.

Until June this, the Ranji Trophy consisted of 27 teams in all being divided into two groups; the Super and the Plate, the former being the premier division containing the top 15 while the latter, the second division held the rest of the lot. At the end of each season after the winner emerges from a series of round robin matches and knockouts, two teams which find themselves at the bottom of the Super league table are relegated to the Plate division. The two top performing teams from the Plate in turn, are duly rewarded by mode of promotion to Super status.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had decided that the time was ripe for much-awaited reforms. In an attempt to make it more democratic and fair for all the competitors, the Super and Plate league system was scrapped. Instead, three new groups (A, B and C) each containing a mix of nine teams (either formerly Plate or Super) would be put in place. After a series of inter and intra group matches, a knockout between a final of eight teams results in one of them walking away with the silverware.

The old points system for matches was more or less retained: an outright win fetched your team seven points (an increment of one from previous seasons), a bonus of two if the win was by an innings or ten wickets. If the match were to end in a draw (which happens to be commonplace), then you’d be better off if your team batted first – and slowly too. A valuable three points is added to your kitty if you lasted long enough to ensure a lead from the first innings. If not, then the opposition gains one point.

The tweaked system has done little to change the overall game. The dust bowls, for the most part, ensure that four days are not enough to enforce a result in the first place. Teams almost always resort to ensuring a draw unless they are pushed to the edge of avoiding relegation or qualifying for knockouts. Abysmal levels of fielding and tremendously inane amounts of defensive play make matches less than memorable. To make matters worse, individual performances ultimately take precedence over team play, with sights set clearer on donning the national jersey.

V.Ramnarayan, who had a successful run as an off-spinner for Hyderabad (1975-1981) chipped in with his opinion on the issue: “I was very much satisfied with the earlier two league format. I felt it required no change at all. The new system would only result in the overall quality of cricket getting diluted.”

Indeed, if one introspects carefully with the new format, there are high possibilities of the least impressive Plate teams facing the best of the Super league ones within their own groups. The match ostensibly becomes a one-sided affair.

Arun Venugopalan, a sports journalist, working for a well-known daily, does not readily agree on this. “Plate divisions got to play fewer matches compared to the Super league teams. Now we have equal number of matches being played among all three groups. There is no requirement for additional knockouts between Plate teams to qualify further ahead. It has, in a strict sense, become more democratic.”

Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan, an Indian cricketer who made his first class debut in 1999 for Tamil Nadu with additional stints for Haryana and Goa concurred: “The new format is definitely good. With more opportunities, lesser known teams can make an impact. Their scenarios are not like how it used to be 5 or 10 years back. Teams like Rajasthan and Tripura have seen massive changes in infrastructure and training. Their cricket has improved. Look at Mumbai now; they are actually struggling for a victory.”

The recent twist in the tale of Ranji Trophy victors does seem to tally with small, but significant changes made to the format down its timeline. Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a standard Elite/Super team, holds the record for the maximum number of wins in the tournament including 15 back-to-back wins from 1958 to 1973. Till the 2008-09 season, Plate teams were not eligible to contest for the cup. Only one more year had to pass before history was made, when Rajasthan from the second division were not only promoted but went on to win their maiden Ranji Trophy.

Former Indian Test opener Aakash Chopra, a regular cricket columnist in the media nowadays, felt that the new grouping and schedules would only add to the strain of domestic cricketers. “A good 60 days would be spent on players’ activity out of which 12 goes away in travel. If you take into account practice sessions and plausible injuries, then it’s all the more worse.”

The existing points system, however, has seen more brickbats than favourable reviews. Calls have increasingly been made to introduce points for milestones produced in runs scored or wickets taken, like how it has been perfectly implemented in England and Australia. For instance, considering the batting team, 1 point may be added for every 50 runs scored after they reach an affixed value, say 150 or 200.

The addition stops after they reach a total of 400. Similarly, in the case of bowling, every wicket taken after the 3rd or 4th, one till the 9th would fetch an additional point too.

Prabhu Shankar, a software engineer in Chennai and a cricket enthusiast, gave the thumbs up for such a suggestion. “That would certainly make it more interesting from a spectator’s point of view. Test matches themselves are generally boring. An overhaul by giving these extra points would not only pull in the crowds but also lessen the number of drawn matches,” he said, adding “it would also set clear targets for batsmen and bowlers at the end of the day, to do what’s required for a victory.”

Ramnarayan, although, chose to highlight the darker side-effects of such methods. “There would be increased scope for rigging the matches. Spot fixing, where somebody bets when a certain wicket would fall or a boundary would be hit, becomes more of an issue,” he said. “Also, two teams which share some sort of camaraderie may unofficially decide how to play against each other at the cost of a third team. The batting and bowling points system adds to this menace.”

This does make sense even to the layman, who has an idea of how big the unauthorised betting industry is in India. “But this might only happen during big international matches or the IPL. I don’t see how it would create problems in domestic cricket,” dismissed Vidyut. “You (as an organising body) shouldn’t allow such factors to grow as impediments while framing rules.”

Aakash Chopra, for one, has been one of the most persistent supporters to usher in this new points system. In 2009, when he released his book Beyond the Blues: A First-Class Season Like No Other, he suggested a new methodology where teams will be awarded 5 points for scoring 375 runs or more in 125 overs and 1 point for picking every 2 wickets. This would increase the overall pace of the game and the aggression with which it would be played. The present coach of Rajasthan, Meryck Pringle, stood by Chopra, calling for this revamp at the start of the season which ultimately fell on deaf ears.

Another clash of perspectives in the Ranji centres on the type of ball being used – the quintessential SG brand. This ball, with a nicely pronounced seam, forms the core of an orthodox spinner’s arsenal, especially on flat tracks. The recent performances of Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ohja, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar in the Mumbai and Ahmedabad face-off between India and England would stand testimony to this.

But once the Indian contingent finds itself on foreign turf, even its most talented spinners cannot find their rhythm with a Kookaburra ball. This ball has a characteristic low seam which generally holds on for about 20 overs and then gives way after that – a boon for fast bowlers, particularly to those who can generate reverse swing. It also happens to be the first choice of a ball in the international domestic arena.

“Spin is the standard when it comes to Indian bowling. The SG therefore becomes the natural choice. We should stick to it,” said Prabhu Shankar.

“But if you’re born and brought up with just one type of ball, then your matches abroad will cost you dearly,” added Vidyut pitching in for the Kookaburra’s inclusion.

Arun Venugopal recalled what Murali Kartik, the Indian left arm off spinner thought of the Kookaburra. “He considered it a spinner’s nightmare. In Indian pitches, it becomes all the more dangerous. ‘The batsmen would celebrate triple or quadruple tons easily’: that’s what he had to say about it.”

The ball, again, does not have to squarely take the blame every time. “Our real problem,” Ramnarayan elucidates, “is the absence of a genuine quickie. We’ve never had one; even if we did, look at the pitches.”  The point ultimately is steered back to the fact that the tracks are a haven for sloggers. “I think we need more variation, like the Australian wickets. The sport then becomes more meaningful,” he added.

Meaningful is a term which should be approached with caution when it comes to the subject of cricket in India. The BCCI apart from committing itself to the Ranji Trophy is also responsible for slotting in the rest of the calendar year with events like the Duleep Trophy, Deodhar trophy, Irani Trophy, Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and Challenger Trophy (apart from the Indian Premier League extravaganza). How many of these needs to coexist with the Ranji has been a pertinent question for quite sometime.

According to Arun Venugopalan, the Duleep and Irani trophy are probably the only ones worth retaining as they form keen contests worth viewing (the former is a knockout tournament between the four zones in the country and the latter pits the winners of the Ranji trophy against a Rest of India team). This way you retain both crowd interest and the best players on the field.

“I would subscribe to this elimination of excessive cricket. But chances of exposure for special teams like those from universities or something like President’s XI goes away with that. They did form a unique part of first class cricket back in my days,” Ramnarayan admitted.

Solutions to the viewership problem however remain elusive. Even during the last phase of the 80s, when a ticket for a Ranji match sold for only Rs.5, crowds thronged to watch the full four or five days. “It was entirely a matter of prestige,” Ramnarayan said.

To quote a case in point, Sharda Ugra of Cricinfo still cites her most memorable Sachin Tendulkar moment as a Ranji Trophy match where Bombay defeated Tamil Nadu. The stands were more or less empty, but she remembered the little maestro celebrating the winning run as if it was any other international victory.

The absence of star-voices in Ranji commentary is also to blame for the lackadaisical following. Yesteryear legends like Richie Benaud and Mark Taylor still lend their voices to the Sheffield Shield. “People like Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly should have been made to go through the local grind before commentating for international games.” said Vidyut, who has done his bit for the same.

“Privatisation is not the solution for bringing in more viewership.” said Aakash Chopra. According to him, State Cricket Associations have enough cash inflow to make do without more sponsors. “Associations should add more infrastructural amenities to make watching matches more enjoyable.” Chopra advocated the building of a “loyal fan base” for the teams from scratch, by getting more schools to Ranji matches.

To find an answer to the spectator dilemma, the average cricket lover needs only to turn to his/her living room and set-top box. “International cricket has slowly slipped into our daily lives and ruined domestic cricket. When you have the choice of switching between channels to find the most succulent international match, why would you want to watch a boring Ranji game?” Ramnarayan asked.

Ramnarayan fondly remembered the legendary “Bobby” Talyarkhan, whose radio commentaries turned Indian players into household names. Talyarkhan once recommended international Test matches be scrapped briefly for domestic cricket’s sake.

When we confronted Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan with this idea he replied, putting it as pragmatically as possible: “That’s just crazy!”