No reward for topping the table
Karnataka and Tamil Nadu won't gain any advantage from topping their Ranji groups this season. Even though they are the leaders of their groups by a fair distance, it's Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh, the finalists from last season, who will get the easier quarter-final opponents - the teams from the Plate League. While Karnataka are not impressed with what seems to be a new rule, Tamil Nadu sort of saw it coming, because that's how the Ranji Trophy worked in the 1990s, before the Elite League and Plate League - and hence clear-cut semi-finalists - were introduced.
Last season, when the system of promoting two Plate teams to the quarterfinals was introduced, the two Super group leaders got to play them, and as expected made it to the semi-finals. This year, Karnataka with a whopping 28 points from six games, and Tamil Nadu with 26 from seven would have also expected easy quarterfinals, but they will be facing Punjab and Delhi respectively. On the other hand, UP and Mumbai, who finished second and third respectively in their groups, get the simpler matches against Assam and Haryana.
"It's quite unfair to give the advantage to them [the finalists from the last season]," Robin Uthappa, Karnataka's captain, told Cricinfo. "It's unfair on teams who have done really well this season. We could have finished second or third and could have still played Punjab, who we are playing anyway. That beats the whole purpose, all the hard work that goes in topping a table."
WV Raman, Tamil Nadu's coach, though, "distinctly remembered the system from earlier years" and was waiting for the confirmation, which - as with most of us - reached his team on the last day of the league stages. "The last year when the format changed, group-toppers got to play Plate teams. But this system was there [in the nineties] that when winners or runner-ups qualified in the next year, even though they didn't top the group they would automatically become No. 1 and No. 2 [for the purposes of deciding who will play whom in the knockouts]."
What Raman alluded to was the time when the league matches were played on a zonal basis. Three teams from each of the five zones qualified to play a Super League in three groups of five. The top two teams from each group would qualify for the next round, but two of those six would get byes and the other four would play quarter-finals to join the top two in the semis. The teams getting the bye were the finalists from the previous year, and if those finalists didn't make it past the Super League, teams with most points would go straight to semi-finals. For example, in 1999-2000, Karnataka, who finished sixth in terms of points in the Super League, got the bye because they were the defending champions. Madhya Pradesh, who lost the final in 1998-99, didn't make it to the Super League.
Hence Raman and Tamil Nadu were not surprised when they were told they would be playing Delhi and not Assam in the quarter-finals this year.
When asked if he, like Uthappa, thought it was unfair to reward teams for previous season's form and deny the best teams of the on-going season, Raman said, "If that is the rule, what can you do? I wasn't surprised, but we were just waiting for the information to come."
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo