A tepid start minus the stars
In many ways this is a unique first-class season in India. For starters, the format has undergone a massive overhauling, with every team now getting a minimum of eight matches. The Duleep Trophy will now be held before the Ranji season starts in November and the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (T20), quite rightly, will be conducted at the end of the season and just before the IPL.
Oddly though, there's something equally unexpected transpiring at ground zero within most first-class teams. For the first time, a lot of the players/coaches are secretly wishing for their star players' teams playing the Duleep Trophy, Champions League etc to lose! It's bizarre because the same people who took pride when a few among them went a step further to represent their zone and an IPL franchise are now hoping that their respective team loses. It certainly isn't out of a grudge for the more fortunate lot; in fact they still want their wards and peers to do well. But they also want them to be back as soon as possible.
The fact is, the Ranji Trophy is serious business, much more serious than the IPL, Duleep Trophy or the Champions League. If you don't believe me, visit any state association's ground right now and you'll see the dedication and complete devotion towards preparing for the season. While the IPL teams get together a week before the tournament, zonal sides for the Duleep Trophy meet directly at the venue. Compare this with a month (or more) long camp with at least six hours of training every day for a Ranji Trophy team before the season.
While the Ranji camps are in full swing, the soul has been sucked right out of these camps because the men who make all the difference for these state teams are either busy representing the zonal sides or are in South Africa honing their T20 skills. Delhi has lost almost their entire squad, including the coach to both these tournaments, and hence it didn't come as a surprise when their officials spoke on record that they wished for their early exits.
Many state teams, as an essential part of the process, have also brought in different agencies to conduct programs on 'Mental toughness', 'Goal setting' and 'Team building'. Unfortunately, with the main building blocks of the team away, it's the guys who are unlikely to be a part of the eventual squad who are participating in these programs.
While CLT20 is a different beast and its scheduling doesn't fall under the Technical Committee's purview, one can't say the same about the Duleep Trophy. Was it really necessary to hold this tournament just ten days ahead of the season? Earlier, the Duleep Trophy was held at the end of the Ranji season and worked as a just reward. But now, one has to wait several months of no competitive cricket to start the next season with the Duleep Trophy. There must be some sound logic in making this shift, but I'm yet to discover that. Feel free to chip in with your guesses.
Since we're discussing the Duleep Trophy it's worth mentioning that the timing of this tournament isn't the only thing that has changed this season, for the ball with which it was played for the last few seasons has also been shelved for this year's edition. A few years ago, at Rahul Dravid's behest the BCCI had introduced the Kookaburra ball for the Duleep Trophy. The reason for playing with the Kookaburra and not the traditional SG Test ball was that our players found the going a little tough in overseas conditions, and the Kookaburra used in most countries had a significant role to play in our predicament. Sachin Tendulkar had gone a step further to suggest that we should even consider using the Kookaburra ball in the second innings of every Ranji game. Obviously, he also saw merit in making the Indian players familiar with the Kookaburra much in advance.
In case you're wondering what sets apart a Kookaburra from an SG Test, since both the balls are of the same color, shape and weigh exactly the same, here's a crash course on the differences--the new Kookaburra ball has a more pronounced seam and moves appreciably in the air. On the contrary, the SG Test ball, even with its pronounced seam, starts moving only when one side becomes slightly rough. The Kookaburra doesn't swing or seam even half as much once it gets old and hence the only way to make the ball talk is by hitting the deck hard. Well, it's quite the opposite with the older SG Test ball, for it swings appreciably the whole day. Another significant difference is that as the Kookaburra ball gets old, its seam gets embedded on the surface and makes it difficult for finger spinners. But the seam remains pronounced throughout on the SG ball and hence even finger spinners can impart more revolutions and get more purchase off the surface.
These subtle differences are actually not so subtle when it comes to adjusting and modifying your game accordingly in quick time. There was merit in organizing a tete-e-tete between the cream of Indian cricket and the Kookaburra ball.
The flip side of using the Kookaburra ball was that it responds best on hard and bouncy pitches and hence it wasn't as productive on the surfaces where the Duleep Trophy was played. Perhaps, playing only once a year wasn't enough to know the finer nuances of the workings of the ball and remember them too. But instead of addressing the bigger issues, which are the 'non-responsive surfaces' and not enough game time with the Kookaburra, we have dumped the ball. Instead of finding out why the idea hasn't worked, we have scrapped the idea itself. The reasons better be profound.