There are reasons for why Ranji Trophy is being seen as a soft target, for local officials as well as the Indian cricket board members. Powerless to bring to task some influential state units from crudely exploiting the home advantage by dishing out underprepared wickets, the BCCI decided on the convenient option of playing it on neutral venues.
BCCI’s hand was forced because some state associations started preparing rank turners or thick green tops in a bid to go for outright wins. Soon the menace grew. Other teams, understanding they were being unfairly left behind in the qualification race for the knock-out stage, were under pressure to also manipulate wickets.
From purely cricketing gains playing on neutral venues is a novel idea which is expected to improve the quality of cricket. To pull it off is going to be a nightmarish exercise though. Logistically it will need a huge effort. Not to mention the mental toll it is going to take on the cricketers, who will be forced to be on the road continuously for long periods. In fact, it is going to be the longest period the domestic players will be out in their careers.
Earlier, they played one half of the league games at home. And, it’s a long season. For example, the Ranji Trophy champions, Mumbai played 11 games (nine four-day and two five-day games). There’s naturally a fear that cases of burnout will be on the rise.
Even some of the local association officials are not enthused. They will hardly be in regular touch with their teams, which could lead to a communication gap.
“We have to follow the Board’s decision, but it would have been better if we had played half our matches at home. It is convenient and easy to organise,” says Mumbai Cricket Association’s hon secretary Dr PV Shetty, while sharing his concern over how mentally taxing it could be on the players.
Sharing his thoughts on the topic, in a lighter vein, the Karnataka coach J Arun Kumar says, “Our wives and kids will forget us (going to away from home for so long).”
It also raises the question, then why not other tournaments like the Indian Premier League on neutral wickets?
A BCCI official’s argument is the crowd factor: the IPL games draw huge numbers while there are no takers for Ranji Trophy. But, this difference doesn’t hold good for some teams, like Karnataka. “Our is a big state and for matches in Hubli, Shimoga and Mysore, we get good crowds, up to 20,000 to 15,000. We have some celebrities in our team and the juniors, who come to watch them, will miss out,” observes Arunkumar.
The MCA secretary argues playing on neutral venues will not affect IPL as much as the Ranji teams. “The IPL team has players from all over the world, they will draw crowds anywhere they play. In the Mumbai Ranji team, all the players are local hence the local connect is more,” believes Dr Shetty.
However, the Karnataka coach understands the logic behind BCCI’s decision. “It is to avoid matches getting over inside two and three days. People have misused the advantage. If we respect the wicket and the spirit of the game then there would not have been an issue. There’s nothing wrong in trying it,” avers Arunkumar, who doesn’t agree that the same yardstick can be applied for the IPL. “For the four-day games it is different, wicket cannot go bad in one day.”
Some of the professional cricketers are excited. Baroda’s Yusuf Pathan says he is looking forward to the new season. “It will be something new; it’ a good decision and I am looking at it positively. We will see some good cricket on the sporting tracks and the competition will be better. Each wicket is different, if Baroda has red soil, Ahmedabad has black soil. We will come out as better cricketer for the experience.
“It will be challenging to adapt quickly,” says Yusuf.
Having travelled with the Indian team on long tours, the all-rounder is used to the rigours and dismisses being away from home for lengthy periods as a minor concern. “As a professional cricketer, one has to sacrifice, then only you can achieve something.”
However, earlier too, the BCCI had tried the experiment of neutrals venues in the knock-out games in the Ranji Trophy. It was not well received. Simply put: It just didn’t feel right. What will also hurt is that the limited attention that it gets in the media now, is likely to diminish further. The stakeholders have their fingers crossed.