Harbhajan backs neutral venues for Ranji knockouts
391 overs. 1133 runs. 13 wickets. The summary of the Ranji Trophy quarter-final between Jharkhand and Punjab is more than enough to indicate what kind of wicket was offered for a knock-out game of the premier domestic championship at the Keenan Stadium in Jamshedpur.
And it's not just about Jamshedpur. The numbers in Rajkot and Mumbai - two of the other three quarter-final venues - are also similar, if not worse, in terms of competition between the bat and the ball. This, in a season when the BCCI has issued a diktat to all the state associations for producing 'sporting' tracks.
The only quarter-final that saw a result was, not surprisingly, played at a neutral venue. With England based at the Palam ground in Delhi, Services hosted favourites Uttar Pradesh at the Holkar Stadium in Indore in what turned out to be a fascinating contest with David eventually overcoming Goliath.
If the four quarter-finals were an indication, isn't it high time the BCCI returns to the policy they adopted during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons? That of playing all knockout games at neutral venues, thereby negating any home advantage and reducing the possibility of a flat-bed. Punjab skipper Harbhajan Singh supported the neutral venue theory despite ending up on the better side.
"Yes. Why not? We're playing the premier domestic competition where all the teams have got an advantage of playing at home in the league stages. When it comes to knockout stages, why not have Punjab playing in Mumbai and Mumbai playing in Gujarat and Haryana," Harbhajan said, after Punjab progressed to the semi-final on the basis of the first innings lead against Jharkhand. "It will also be good for the game. Imagine someone like Sachin Tendulkar going and playing in Haryana or in Delhi, people will come to watch and it will be a big thing for the game, so why not!"
The game in Jamshedpur turned out to be a torrid experience for the bowlers. The wicket - which neither offered movement or bounce for seamers nor turn for spinners - surprised Shahbaz Nadeem, the Jharkhand captain. "The two home games we played here, the wicket was so much better. The ball was coming off the deck much quicker and the spinners came into the game on the third and the fourth day. Such kind of a wicket came as a real surprise. It negated all sorts of home advantage we had."
With literally no help from the strip, the bowlers had nothing else to do but "hope" as Harbhajan said. But he expressed his displeasure with some of the umpiring decisions that went against him
"A few decisions didn't go my way and for that I have been fined. Otherwise, I could have had three-four wickets in my account," he said. "I hope that the umpiring standards improve. At least those who are out should be given out. On these kind of wickets, you're going to get a batsman out only once. And if you're not given the wickets you've earned, then perhaps you have to toil for another 20-odd overs."
If Keenan was bad, Khanderi could be worse for Punjab as they prepare for their semi-final against Saurashtra. With Rajkot renowned for flat pitches, Punjab could be in for yet another tough week ahead.
"It (the Rajkot pitch) would be more or less similar to this," Harbhajan said. "Let's hope we get a result-oriented wicket. Whether it's a seaming track or a spinning track, it should produce a result. That too on the fifth day, not the sixth. Sixth day will be like… I don't know. I have never seen it, I have never played it. If there is no result in six days, then what's the point. The best thing is to get a result in five days. It would be better to produce a wicket that produces a result in five days rather than extending the match by another day."
Over to Rajkot!
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo