Ranji Trophy: Time to abandon neutral venues
Ranji Trophy was last season played on ‘neutral venues’ after a sudden change which meant that teams couldn’t play at ‘home’ or even in their zone.cricket Updated: Jul 20, 2017 10:33 IST
Last August, India started their longest-ever cricket season, marked by 27 international games and a pink-ball Duleep Trophy under lights. This year, the domestic calendar hasn’t been announced yet, what we have instead is loads of uncertainty and confusion about key issues.
This specially is the case with Ranji Trophy, played last season on ‘neutral venues’, after a sudden change that meant teams couldn’t play at ‘home’ or even in their zone. Banished, thus, they led a nomadic existence and were on the road for months at a stretch.
The reasons offered for making Ranji Trophy a travelling circus don’t stand scrutiny. Ostensibly, the home- away format was junked because of ‘pitch fixing’, a sharp practice where teams sought an unfair ‘home’ advantage by preparing akharas/rank turners in a gamble to get outright wins. To eradicate this malpractice, the BCCI deleted the pitch and ‘home’ advantage from the system.
Which, one can argue, is a neat way of solving the problem. But, looked at from a different perspective, the question must be asked: If the pitch is a problem, why not fix the pitch? The answer to a bad pitch is a good pitch ---why replace a knee when someone complains of a bad shoulder?
England, when faced with the problem of teams preparing overly seam-friendly tracks, offered visiting teams the option of bowling first --- by dispensing with the toss. They also put in place stringent punishments for those crossing the line about pitches.
The BCCI, instead of going down this path, took the extraordinary step of moving Ranji Trophy to ‘neutral’ venues, the only country in the world to do so. Some cynics say the BCCI is only being pragmatic as it has previously failed to act against teams making bad wickets, except once when the Railways ground was struck off the fixtures list. Otherwise, all offenders got away with impunity, like Delhi’s rogue drivers do when jumping red lights.
The decision to scratch home games is fundamentally flawed, a view articulated forcefully by Ranji Trophy captains/coaches when they met the BCCI. Neutral-venue cricket is a parentless child, they said, unloved by state associations who see no joy in hosting two outside teams. Local media gives these games a pass and when Tripura plays Goa in Rohtak fans just don’t show up.
Cricket suffers in other ways too. If Delhi’s young players can’t see/interact/meet Virat, it is a loss at two levels. One: Budding cricketers miss out on being inspired by their heroes. Two: The talent pathway within a state team, of seniors helping juniors, gets horribly undermined. With Ranji teams spinning in a distant solar system, the senior captain is unable to share his experience with younger colleagues. Worse, pitches at neutral venues do nothing to progress cricket because curators play safe by preparing batting-friendly paata tracks where big runs are scored and everyone is happy.
When asked why Ranji Trophy is important, Rahul Dravid, the sage, made a telling observation. Ranji Trophy, he said, should strengthen Indian cricket by developing quality players who can win matches for India.
It is unlikely neutral venues help achieve that goal. Best to roll it back, revert to the home-away format and come down hard on teams that play around with pitches to cause long-term damage for short-term gains.
(Amrit Mathur is a former sports administrator who worked with the BCCI as media manager. Views expressed are personal)