CHENNAI: For a lay onlooker, the just-curtained group-phase of Ranji Trophy paints a picture of ultra-competitiveness. As many as 57 of the 216 matches bore decisive results, which, given the past tendency to play out draws and settle for first-innings leads, is healthy percentage. The knockout-dogfight was so fierce that, going into the last round, only Mumbai was assured of a last-eight spot. Fortunes fluctuated so dramatically that last year’s finalists Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were knocked off their perches in extraordinary fashion.
For the number-crunchers and stat-mincers, there was plenty of fodder to lick their lips in glee. The Himachal Pradesh-Kerala match that got over in a mere 483 minutes was the shortest in Ranji history. There were nine instances of matches getting over in two days, twice as many as the last four seasons combined, and 18 times did teams fold up for less than 100. There was plenty that engaged the romantics, too. There was the dramatic rise of Assam and Vidarbha, the latter emerging Pool A toppers from a group that included heavyweights Karnataka and Bengal. Assam medium-pacer Krishna Das’ remarkable comeback from a near-fatal accident made for heart-warming narrative. So did the penury-to-prosperity tale of Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner DT Chandrasekar, one of the few bright sparks of their otherwise middling campaign. Two long-serving servants of domestic cricket bid goodbye — the flabby Ramesh Powar and unheralded Yashpal Sharma.
For the curious chroniclers of the game, young Mumbaikar Shreyas Iyer offered considerable promise, if not the readiness to step up to a bigger pedestal. Bengal opener Abhimanyu Easwaran scored a terrific 88 on an underprepared strip in a match wherein Odisha were bundled out for a season-low 37. There was a spin revolution of sorts, as six of the top 10 wicket takers, and four of the top-five, were spinners. There was a fair share of controversies too, and as in cue with the Freedom Series, those pertained to the behaviour of the 22-yard strip. For, in terms of the premier domestic tournament fulfilling the larger role of moulding young talents, this season was a letdown, and viewed through this prism, the debates surrounding the pitches were neither unfounded nor unwarranted.
The pattern of home associations selfishly doctoring surfaces that advantaged their bowlers, mostly spinners, was as distressing as it was counter-intuitive. “It’s fine if you dish out rank turners once in a while. When it becomes a norm, it becomes a concern. It only retards the growth of a spinner, for he wouldn’t learn how to purchase wickets on a batting-friendly strip. Only then will he really develop the craft and graduate into international cricket. Otherwise, he gets a false confidence,” observed former spinner Narendra Hirwani.
Resultantly, they don’t make much of an impression on the selectors as well. For example, none of the spinners who fetched truckloads of wickets last year, like Swarupam Purkayastha and Malolan Rangarajan, were anywhere in the national selectors’ scheme of things. Barring Jalaj Saxena — whose all-round efforts and work-rate over the years could be rewarded — the other top-five wicket-takers would less likely sneak into the selection radar.
Even if the likes of KS Monish and Akshay Wakhare are made of potentially international stuff, it’s likely that their efforts would go largely undervalued. Interestingly, and in a sense ironically, it was an exact reversal of green top-fixation that domestic cricket had endured in the last five years or so. The logic then was to equip batsmen to deal with swing and seam, but the move only backlashed in that even military-medium trundlers assumed unearthly menace.
Lost amidst the radical extremes is moderatism. “Playing on different wickets will definitely help the growth of a player, but at the same time, playing on under-prepared wickets would do little help, to a batsman, spinner or pacer. You need to have conditions as close to international standards as possible,” reckoned former cricketer Lalchand Rajput. And it has to begin with home associations dispensing with short-term goals and focussing on the larger canvas.
Whether that’s the ultimate prerogative of the tournament is a different argument altogether, though that is a much-trumpeted trope.