January 20, 2012

The case for a 12-team Ranji Trophy

To revive the Indian team, the board must first reorganise the domestic structure. How about fewer teams and a shorter, better planned season?

Two options present themselves before those who are supposed to love and cherish Indian cricket. They could take the easy way out and skim the surface, make cosmetic changes; drop a player here or there; pass the blame to the selectors, the IPL, the senior players, the captain; and wait for the tide to turn. Or they could view the results from England and Australia as a magnificent opportunity to introspect honestly. Both words are important, for if you don't introspect honestly, you merely benefit airlines, hotels and incapable people.

The board could make the systemic changes that Indian cricket, like an orphaned child, has been crying out for. They could begin the process of trying to become No. 1 again, which, even if not always apparent, is not a bad objective. Critically, they could begin the process of transformation; from looking at profit-loss statements to win-loss statements. Inevitably the second takes care of the first.

Top of the list, when it comes to looking for change, is intent. If you have it, nothing else matters, for paths present themselves. If you don't have it, you meander your way through, occasionally stumbling onto success but not recognising it well enough to build a home there. Let us then assume intent.

The first priority is to produce ready cricketers, and therefore to search for the process most likely to produce them. The current system has worked in parts; some extraordinary players have been spotted and nurtured over the years. It is not a wicked system but it only works up to a point. Being consistently excellent seems to elude it.

The key to any resurgence is not to seek to produce the best national team but the best set of players immediately below it. If your first-class system is strong, the national team is automatically strong; the unfashionable always comes first. You cannot produce great leaders without a sound moral base, and you cannot build the first floor without the foundation below it. An intensely competitive Ranji Trophy will automatically produce a sound national team. And so that is where we need to begin. And that is where we need to be armed with intent.

Rather than have many teams playing many games, we need to have fewer teams playing more games. We currently have 27 teams split into Elite and Plate groups. It was an idea worth trying, but it is still too many teams and few know who plays in the Plate group anyway. There is a system of promotion and relegation, again sound in theory, but it does nothing to improve the quality of cricket. Hardly anyone in the Plate group, in spite of Rajasthan's fairytale, threatens to break into the national team. With 27 teams you should have had about eight fast bowlers, eight spinners and five wicketkeepers fighting to be in the national team. It is time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

My 11 teams for the Ranji Trophy are Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh (including Hyderabad), Maharashtra (including Mumbai), Gujarat (including Vadodara and Saurashtra), Central India (including Vidarbha, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand), Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal. And I think Railways deserve to be the 12th

I suggest no more than 12 teams in the Ranji Trophy - and that means no Elite or Plate groups. Just 12 teams. I can hear objections about 27 associations, the need to spread the game as deep as possible, the organisational hurdles... but it is precisely by listening to such voices that Indian cricket has remained inconsistent. That is why intent must lead the way. Having 27 associations and teams is a decoy; it promises only numbers, not excellence.

With 12 teams, you will get 11 first-class games each and that is good enough. It also means there is no room for the Duleep Trophy, the zonal first-class tournament that outlived its utility many years ago. The Duleep Trophy fills dates in a calendar; it does little else. It was meant to be a higher standard of cricket than the Ranji Trophy, but if you improve Ranji, the Duleep Trophy becomes redundant.

It will mean merging some of the existing teams, and the major deterrents here are the vote at the annual general meeting and the grant each state body gets. Neither is necessarily conducive to producing great cricketers. Yes, you will lose some cricketers, but if the top 150 players in the country cannot produce a competitive national team then the top 400 won't. You cannot dilute a system to protect its non-performing assets.

My first 11 teams for the Ranji Trophy are Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh (including Hyderabad), Maharashtra (including Mumbai), Gujarat (including Vadodara and Saurashtra), Central India (including Vidarbha, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand), Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal. That leaves a 12th, and I think Railways, for their sheer determination and ability to fight the odds, and their commitment to employing cricketers, deserve to be the 12th, but with a share of the grant from the BCCI so they can look the other teams in the eye.

It will mean no place for Kerala, Goa, Tripura, Assam, J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Orissa and Services. But their recent contribution to Indian cricket has been negligible, so they must go into a catchment area. It is not discrimination, just a search for the best.

Accordingly, the Ranji Trophy season could be played from mid-October to end-January, with maybe, only maybe, an Irani Trophy match immediately following, so that the best players in a season get rewarded in the same season. The scheduling will be a bit tricky since you will also need to play a 50-over game along with the Ranji game, but that is an area the BCCI has been pretty good at.

After a little gap, I propose an A series against a visiting side, from mid-February to mid-March, which will allow a clear two to three weeks of rest before the IPL. June remains free for everyone and the best players then embark on an A tour in July to either Australia or England. Maybe the A tours at home and away can be in alternate years, to ensure the calendar isn't too packed. And to round it off, a month between mid-August and mid-September will be completely free.

This is merely the draft of a thought process, but it will allow the Test players to play the first two or three games in the Ranji Trophy and will require the BCCI to ensure the itinerary they want. It shouldn't be difficult.

There are many other issues. The composition of the selection committee - the most potent arm of Indian cricket - the direction the National Cricket Academy needs to take, the amount of international cricket, the clear window pre- and post-IPL, the quality of pitches, the training of Indian coaches, the appointment of a permanent manager, the right media partners, etc. If each of these is approached with intent as the guiding light, there cannot be darkness. Maybe thoughts next week on those.

But Indian cricket has to move away from its obsession with the profit-loss statement and towards an obsession with a win-loss statement. Everything else will follow.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

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