Too much play, too little time for Ranji Trophy
We're only done with the first round and the unforgiving Ranji Trophy schedule has already claimed three casualties. Irfan Pathan, who played the Champions League in South Africa and seven days of continuous first-class cricket after that, is out with a knee injury. Ajit Agarkar has picked up a niggle that is not serious, but the three-day gap doesn't give him enough time to recover and come back to captain Mumbai. Delhi have already rested Ashish Nehra, and will keep rotating fast bowlers to manage their fast bowlers' work load.
The Himachal Pradesh bowlers, who bowled through the whole of the final day of their match to push for an outright win, have not bowled a single ball in the nets in the three days since then. The second round begins on Friday, exactly a week after the first did, and except for one occasion, all league matches will be played three days apart.
The most frustrating part for the players is that even minor injuries will force them out of games. "The worst part is I have picked up a niggle," says Agarkar, who is travelling with the Mumbai team but not playing, "which I know is not serious, but I don't have the time - in three days - to turn around and recover to play the next game. I know if I had about five days, I would still have had a chance. Three is very demanding, especially when it involves a day of travel. Not an excuse, you have to get on with it, but it is tough."
The damage is not limited to injuries. So much cricket only discourages people from bowling fast. "I am worried about the quality of fast bowlers coming through," Agarkar says. "You can already see how few guys can bowl close to 140kmph for long periods of time. You will find it even more difficult [with this schedule]."
Aakash Chopra has seen bowlers start the season bowling at 135kmph and being reduced to trundlers by the end of it. As captains, both Chopra and Agarkar know the schedule is counterproductive to the attempts to shift domestic cricket towards an outright-win culture. Not many teams want their bowlers to bowl 80 overs on the final day when all they have is an outside chance for a result.
"Sometimes it does dictate your thinking," says Agarkar. "Pitches dictate it firstly, but there might be times when you might want to keep your bowlers fresh once you have taken the first-innings lead as opposed to going for a difficult outright win. Recovery time really matters."
Sanjay Bangar, another captain, thinks otherwise. "Most teams probably tend to treat the fourth day as a resting day," Bangar says, "but if you are in a position to force an outright result, and even if you don't end up getting an outright result, even three or four wickets help the quotient aspect. That can help when you are tied with a team at the end of the group stages."
The ideal break between matches, says Agarkar, will be four days ("six is a luxury") and then a gap of about 10 days mid-season. However, the Ranji Trophy in India goes on as if a chore that has to be got out of the way. The Indian winter is limited, and the number of tournaments - Irani, Challenger, Duleep, Ranji (first-class and List A), Deodhar and Syed Mushtaq Ali - huge. It is a huge credit to the BCCI that it can organise so many matches smoothly. The Ranji tournament alone involves 12 first-class matches being played simultaneously.
The obvious choice here is between a fewer tournaments organised properly and many of them done apologetically. Players would rather have the former, but not many will say that on the record. Chopra is one who will. In fact he did so when he presented the BCCI with a paper on what can be done to improve the standard of domestic cricket in India. "Unclutter the schedule" was one of the main points of action. That, also, was the end of the story.
By unclutter, Chopra meant - and he is not alone to mean thus - that Duleep, Deodhar and Challenger could be done away with to allow Ranji the space and time it deserves. Not many will have noticed, but the domestic season this year started on September 21 with the Irani, Challenger and Duleep. It took us until November 2, however, for the real deal to begin. March 10 to 22 will be kept aside for Deodhar and the business-end of the Syed Mushtaq Ali, the latter being the domestic T20 tournament whose winner is not even considered for Champions League qualification.
If some of those other tournaments are done away with, it could free up close to two extra months for the proper scheduling of what can then become a marquee tournament. Both the players and the few, dwindling followers will take that over injury-weakened sides refusing to go after anything resembling bold victory pushes with the ball on the final days of matches.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo