A quiet revolution is blowing through India's first-class game, producing zip, swing, wickets and results.
On November 3, 1999, Rajeev Nayyar, captaining Himachal Pradesh, erased a record that had stood for 40 years. Lasting five minutes under 17 hours, Nayyar's epic 271 eclipsed Hanif Mohammad's 970-minute 337 for the longest first-class innings of all time.
While Nayyar's innings made headlines for its duration, it was just one of several big scores that were being amassed by batsmen all over the country. Five days after Nayyar's feat, Pankaj Dharmani cracked an unbeaten 305 for Punjab and Mohammad Azharuddin made a double-hundred for Hyderabad. Eight scores of more than 200 were made that November, and in all there were 33 scores of 150-plus in 64 Ranji Trophy games that season as bowlers around the country were dominated and manhandled.
Fielding captains often found themselves in hopeless situations and spinners were called upon to limit the damage. Of the top 20 wicket-takers in 1999-00, 11 were spinners; the faster men were often required only for lacquer-removing purposes. The upshot of these batting marathons was that a number of games ended in stalemates: only 50 per cent of matches produced results. One hundred and thirty-seven hundreds were scored in 220 innings.
Five years on, there's a different buzz in the Ranji Trophy: it's about bowlers - pace bowlers in particular - and results. Only five double-hundreds have come in 79 Ranji games this season (and there've been merely 13 individual scores of more than 150). Teams have crossed 500 only very rarely. Medium-pacers - 13 out of the top 20 wicket-takers in the 79 matches so far - were hugely influential, and more matches produced results - nearly a jump of 6.5 per cent from 1999-00.
To dismiss this as a freak season would be naïve. A look at the trends since 1999 reveals a gradual shift of power: from bat to ball, from spinner to seamer, from draws to results. Average first-innings scores have dropped gradually, from 324 in 1999-00 to 279 this season. It is impossible to attribute the transformation to any one factor, but as we explored the possible reasons, the blur gave way to a more meaningful jigsaw.
In 1999, Keith McAuliffe led a group of pitch experts from New Zealand to India. They, along with their Indian counterparts, made an attempt to zero in on the type of pitches that would work best in the country. A number of scientific experiments, dealing primarily with soil dynamics and horticulture, eventually produced a model that was to be implemented in grounds across the country. The BCCI's pitch committee, formed in 1997 but largely ineffective till 1999, soon undertook an extensive operation of inspecting each stadium. The picture in front of them was grim.
At most grounds, the pitch preparation was left to the malis [gardners], many of whom didn't have a basic understanding of the process. Most shaved the grass off completely, and worsened matters by rolling the track with 2.5 ton rollers. The continuous over-rolling made the pitches extremely compact, rendered the grass dead, and reduced the bounce considerably. At many grounds, the ball hardly rose above waist-height.
As late as 1995, most grounds in India didn't have modern irrigation facilities. Equipment was archaic, soil quality wasn't up to scratch, and even a smattering of grass on the pitch was considered a no-no. The wishes of the home captains were adhered to as gospel, and most associations had little control over the groundsman's ways. Many captains approached the groundsman before the game and spelt out the exact nature of the turf they wanted.
The last few years, though, have seen a sea change. Curators' seminars have played their part in instilling a general awareness, and the appointment of five zonal representatives has also streamlined the monitoring process. Interaction with foreign experts has helped, and unlike earlier, when groundsmen prepared pitches by rote, there is a much greater understanding of the intricacies of grasses, soils, pesticides, fertilisers, irrigation, equipment, machinery and the like. According to Daljit Singh, the curator at Mohali, the mindset of both players and administrators has gradually changed. "Last year, a Duleep Trophy game was shifted from Jalandhar because it was felt that there was not enough grass on the wicket. Such measures were hardly taken earlier."
In 2002 there was a major revamp. Pitches on most first-class grounds, including eight of the nine Test centres, were relaid at the behest of the board. The fresh pitches needed approximately two monsoons to settle down completely. Once they did, the faster bowlers were pleasantly surprised with the assistance that some of the tracks offered in the last two seasons of games. The Gymkhana Ground in Secunderabad, where Hyderabad played five matches this year, was the most striking example: medium-pacers accounted for 152 of 185 wickets to fall.
Shivlal Yadav, the former Indian offspinner, was chiefly responsible for developing the pitch, which many players reckon is the bounciest track in the country, and he observed how it could provide spinners with an ideal grooming ground. "A spinner doesn't need a raging turner. The ball just has to turn a bit; bounce is much more critical. That's when the spinner's flight, loop, and mastery of length come into play."
Only 95 hundreds have been made in the 282 Ranji Trophy innings so far this season (33.68%). This is just about half the corresponding percentage in 1999-00, but batsmen have come to accept that it is the way ahead. Kiran Powar, who played for Baroda this year, and has not only been one of the most consistent scorers since 1996 but also has the experience of playing for different teams, thinks it was high time this happened. "Batting techniques will definitely improve and players will learn the importance of grafting. It's a new challenge, and this season most of the batsmen haven't been up to the task."
Not only are many batsmen across the country baffled by the nature of the pitches. many are also convinced that the SG ball, used in domestic cricket for the last 12 years, has changed its properties. Chandrakant Pandit, Mumbai's coach, compared the balls used in the early nineties to the present crop. "Ten years back, the ball used to lose its shine within the first six or seven overs. The bowlers swung the ball much more during the early overs, but once the shine was gone, there was not too much the batsmen had to worry about.
"Now the ball doesn't do too much in the initial stages, but from around the 15th over there is quite a bit of assistance. Bowlers are able to swing the ball even around the 60th over, and once it gets old, reverse-swing comes into play. Unlike earlier, not too many bowlers look forward to the new ball, and even spinners are getting extra help because of the more prominent seam."
Amol Muzumdar, who has been playing for Mumbai since 1993, agrees. "Even when a batsman is on 80 or 90, he is never set when playing against this ball. Earlier, one just had to weather the initial burst; now it is tough to say that you are completely set."
While insisting that there has been no change in the make-up of the ball over the last 12 years, Paras Anand, Director of SG, puts forth a possible reason for the transformation. "Since 1998, we have become extremely conscious with regard to quality, and are constantly in touch with players and coaches in our bid to improve the quality. We have had complaints about seam-cutting recently, which was solved by carefully analysing tolerance levels. Players also felt that the ball lost its shape, so we have tried to stretch the leather more accurately."
If one were to revisit the 1999-00 season and replace the zonal format with this year's divisional system, one would see that 13 of the 33 scores that exceeded 150 were made by batsmen from today's Elite teams against bowlers from the Plate group. The zonal format always gave the powerful sides some easy pickings against the minnows.
Anshuman Gaekwad, the Gujarat coach, considers the change in the format a significant factor. "Teams get to play against similarly matched opponents and you rarely get games when the batsmen have to watch out for just one or two bowlers. Most Elite teams have three, or sometimes even four, quality bowlers, and batsmen can't relax and knock off easy runs at any point in the season."
Another change that the players have had to contend with is the need to get used to weather patterns in different zones across the country, of playing on alien surfaces (each zone has distinctive pitch compositions) and having to acclimatise like on foreign tours. In 1999-00, Karnataka played nine out of their 10 matches in the South Zone. The only time they left the Zone was to play Bengal in Kolkata in early March, one of the most pleasant months of the year. This season, three out of Karnataka's seven league matches were in different zones and they made trips to Kolkata in November and then to Mumbai and Delhi in December, one of the hardest months in which to play cricket in north India.
No one is suggesting that there has been a drastic change in the quality of medium-pacers, but many bowlers who have been playing domestic cricket since the nineties admit that their effectiveness has been enhanced.
Physiotherapy and biomechanics have made their appearance on the domestic scene and Paras Mhambrey, Maharashtra's coach, says there is now more awareness of these aspects. "There are more coaches trained in the science of fast bowling and seamers all over are realising how to get the best out of their body action. Also, bowlers are much fitter these days and are able to bowl more overs a day and sustain their fitness for the entire season. Most teams prefer to play three seamers and one spinner. It was rarely the case in the late nineties. Batsmen today are struggling when put under such sustained pressure."
By sheer coincidence, a large number of matches this season were played on bowler-friendly tracks. Mumbai, Mohali, Hyderabad, Chennai and Nagpur - all of which favoured mediumpacers - hosted 19 games. But there were still a fair number of typical Indian paata surfaces and it will be premature to suggest that the dull days have passed by completely. However, the progress made cannot be ignored and could, if sustained, lead to a completely new era in Indian domestic cricket.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is on the staff of Cricinfo.
This article first appeared in the February 2005 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket. Click here for further details.