February 25, 2012

Overhaul, no. Futile tweaks, yes

The proposed changes to Indian domestic cricket don't address the real problems: substandard pitches, redundant tournaments, and rewards for mediocrity

Now that bowlers in Indian domestic cricket will be allowed to bowl a couple of bouncers per over in a 50-over game, knockout matches will last five days, the Duleep Trophy will be played before the Ranji season and the Irani Cup after, will India be the world's No. 1 side again very soon?

Blame me for being a doubting Thomas, but the hullabaloo over the proposed overhaul of the domestic structure did, at least for a while, encourage the optimist in me. I assumed the intent was noble; the execution, though, has left much to be desired.

The time was right for radical change too. Calls to fix the mess have been gaining ground. Unlike in previous times, like when the BCCI rightly suggested the scrapping of the redundant Deodhar Trophy and the media and certain factions went up in arms.

Spurred by India's abysmal showings internationally, Sourav Ganguly and the others on the BCCI's technical committee have sought to refurbish first-class cricket, and they need to be lauded for spotting the problems, but the need of the hour was tough, pathbreaking revisions of India's cricket constitution. What we have got is a shot in the dark - a supposedly sincere-looking but ultimately futile attempt at modernisation.

Allow me to elucidate.

The new points system
Earlier, if both teams in a Ranji match failed to complete their first innings in four days, neither got any points. The new rule gives them a point each now. Also, knockout matches can now be extended by a day, if both first innings aren't completed in four days. Finally, the host team will be docked two points if they dish out an underprepared surface for a game.

Ask a veteran of the domestic circuit and he'll tell you that the chances of both first innings not concluding in four whole days are tiny. Last season this happened in only one league match, out of 100-odd matches played. How does one justify a rule that affects one game in a hundred?

It would seem that the real bane of domestic cricket, granting three points for a first-innings lead, has been completely and grossly missed. The repercussions of this mindless rule have been all too plain to see. Over the years teams have rarely gone the extra yard for an outright win, since the reward of a mere two extra points doesn't justify the effort. If they can do with three points, why slog for five? This safety-first approach is to blame for the majority of drawn games in the first few rounds. Teams take a risk only when relegation or promotion are on the line. If a rule encourages and rewards mediocrity, shouldn't it be dumped?

My recommendations to the committee included introducing batting and bowling points that would be up for grabs all through a match, a substantial bonus (ten points) for an outright win, and a possible cap in terms of number of overs, after which only the bowling team can earn points.

I suggested a maximum of five points each for every 75 runs scored and two wickets taken. With the stipulation that the batting points could only be gained till the 120th over of an innings. That way, teams would be encouraged to bat at a fair clip and also to declare after 120 overs, for after that the bowling team could keep getting points for taking wickets. The same points system would continue in the second innings, with a bonus of ten points for winning the game.

Under the prevailing points system, teams shy away from setting up matches, for losing a game means no points. If you are looking to improve the quality of cricket at the domestic level, you must overhaul the points system. You can't produce new-age cricketers with archaic rules.

Lastly, docking a team a couple of points to penalise their association for dishing out an underprepared surface is a noble idea, but what about those who dish out highways for wickets? Shouldn't there be a way to penalise them too?

Overruling the working committee's suggestion of playing all matches at neutral venues, the technical committee has recommended that all matches be played home and away, as at present.

How will rescheduling tournaments help when it wasn't their place in the calendar that was a problem to begin with? The real issue here is the calendar, crowded with senseless tournaments

One can understand the rationale behind sticking to home and away matches. Playing at neutral venues will not encourage fans to come and support their teams, leading to empty stadiums. Well considered, but again the committee has not recommended anything to ensure that all matches are played on sporting surfaces. When the working committee proposed neutral venues, it did so because of the vested interests of host associations in the preparation of pitches. The decision to dock the points of host teams that dish out underprepared pitches is commendable, but it only goes halfway.

Six out of seven matches in the first round of the Ranji Trophy Elite League this season ended in draws. Plenty of runs were scored in the first round, which included Ravindra Jadeja's triple-century and a few double-hundreds. On the other hand, only two bowlers managed five-wicket hauls. The pitches on which the Ranji Trophy is played are generally good only for batting. Bowlers are mere participants, not competitors, for the odds are stacked heavily against them.

The worst thing about these batting-friendly conditions is that even run-of-the-mill performances are encouraged. Players who have piled up thousands of runs on these batting beauties are found to be woefully out of their depth in challenging conditions internationally. I wouldn't blame these batsmen for not working on their technique - a player is but a product of the environment he grows up in. If a cricketer has played most of his cricket on surfaces where the ball rarely bounces above knee height, it's unrealistic to expect him to be comfortable playing in Perth or Durban. If India wants to prepare players for bouncy and seaming wickets, it's important to expose them to these conditions regularly. Why would a player work on playing the ball late, in the second line, and so on, when all he needs to do to score runs in domestic circuit is to plant his front foot and play through the line?

There's an urgent need for a powerful central pitch committee, which should be responsible for the quality of pitches across the country. Issuing directives to the state associations and penalising them for dishing out poor surfaces hasn't worked so far. It's important for the board to assume control and get directly involved in the preparation of those vital 22 yards. Playing all matches at neutral venues would have had its pitfalls, but it would at least to a certain extent have addressed this issue.

The domestic calendar
The Duleep Trophy, instead of being played at the end of the season, will now be played at the start. The Irani trophy will be played at the end of the season, while the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy will be played at one stretch.

How will rescheduling tournaments help when it wasn't their place in the calendar that was the problem to begin with? The real issue here is the calendar, crowded with senseless tournaments. Changing the dates of a tournament isn't going to make any difference to the standard of competition or its relevance. If we can't do away with redundant tournaments, we must invest thought in making them worthwhile.

The Duleep Trophy can be a fantastic tournament if it is played on a league basis and the top Indian players are available to participate. Same with the Deodhar Trophy; a knockout tournament that lasts four days isn't going to help anyone's cause.

The technical committee had a brilliant opportunity to shelve the Duleep, Deodhar and Syed Mushtaq Ali trophies, thus giving more space and importance to the Ranji Trophy and the Vijay Hazare Trophy. Moreover, the Elite and Plate divisions have proved to be successful systems of dividing teams. Why then opt for an archaic zone-wise split for the 50-over format?

All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward. The technical committee may have brought in a few changes, but the question is: do they mean anything? Domestic cricket is the engine that runs the vehicle of Indian cricket. When the engine needs overhauling, how does merely a change of upholstery matter?

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here