The Duleep Trophy doesn't find a place in the 2017-18 domestic calendar that kicks off with the Ranji Trophy on October 6. Normally the season-opener, the tournament has been deferred to the beginning of next season given the cramped international calendar that has India playing 20 limited-overs games from September to December.
A BCCI official said the Duleep Trophy was conducted in a year-and-a-half cycle and not necessarily on an annual basis. The Duleep Trophy featured three teams - India Red, India Blue and India Green - last year and was played with the pink ball under lights. The official said the tournament, which would continue to be played with the pink ball, was better suited to be played at the beginning of the season than in the middle or the end.
"If you remember, ahead of the World T20 year [in 2016], we didn't have the Duleep Trophy because there was no relevance in holding it when we were looking at selecting a T20 side," the official told ESPNcricinfo. "Last year, we had a 13-Test season, so starting the Duleep Trophy before the Tests had greater relevance and we had time to do it. The Duleep Trophy takes 24 days [to finish], and with such a long season and with all venues being occupied - obviously we can't do it in June or July - we had only September.
"And, this year we are starting the international season on September 17 which means the team would assemble on September 10 or 11. That's the reason we decided to defer it to the beginning of next season, which is again a Test season with India playing West Indies and touring Australia and New Zealand. The Duleep [Trophy] will then form the basis for selection in the longer formats."
In line with the same principle, the Vinoo Mankad Under-19 50-overs tournament will precede the four-day Cooch Behar tournament, with the Under-19 World Cup being scheduled for January-February next year in New Zealand. Despite India playing a number of limited-overs games in the next few months, the Vijay Hazare 50-overs senior tournament hasn't been advanced.
"The thing is even if Vijay Hazare starts in October-November it will spill over into December," the official said. "However, even the knockouts of Ranji Trophy will be over before India go to South Africa. That way everyone can participate in these games before the South Africa tour begins."
The quarter-finals of the Ranji Trophy are scheduled to be held from December 7 to 11, while the semi-finals will take place from December 17 to 21. The final will be held from December 29 to January 2.
In a letter to all the member units, BCCI's general manager (cricket operations) MV Sridhar wrote that pitch-preparation would be overseen by a curator of the board's grounds and pitches committee. Sridhar also wrote that the central curator's decision in the overall preparation of the pitches would be final. "This decision is more to ensure that the wickets are standardised as per the directions of the technical committee."
The Ranji Trophy will also revert to the home-and-away format for league fixtures in accordance with the recommendations of the BCCI's technical committee which decided to shelve the neutral-venue experiment after just one season. In another significant change to the structure of the tournament, the 28 teams in the competition have been split into four groups of seven each. They have been grouped based on their average points in the last three years.
Karnataka and Delhi will headline the matches in Group A, which will also see an interesting tussle between Maharashtra and last year's quarter-finalists Hyderabad. Group B's marquee encounter will feature Gujarat and Jharkhand, who clashed in the last four in 2016-17, while Mumbai and Tamil Nadu will resume their rivalry in Group C. The game between Punjab and Bengal is expected to be the highlight of Group D.
The new group format means that with a maximum of six games, each team will play at least two fewer matches in the league phase than in the previous years. While a few coaches expressed concerns over fewer opportunities for players, the official defended the decision and said that there was a bigger gap between games now. According to the BCCI's schedule, a copy of which is with ESPNcricinfo, there is a minimum of four days between each round, with a week's break during Diwali.
"This is something we discussed in the captains' and coaches' enclave with everyone," the official said. "There were in fact complaints that there was no gap between Ranji Trophy matches. There was only a gap of three days earlier and in that your travel takes up one day. Even in Vijay Hazare, the gap between one-day games was very less. At times, we were forced to play two or three matches in a row which is not correct. We could never give that gap because we had to complete our entire schedule in a span of six months.
"These are healthy changes. The bowlers had to be given relief. In current-day cricket, with so many formats, spacing [out games] and managing bowlers' workloads is important. For batsmen it is never a problem, but we are seeing a burnout of bowlers because playing three formats has a very big impact on your body."
With balls frequently going out of shape in the Ranji Trophy last year, the quality of the SG Test balls was a major cause for concern. The official said that a new variety of ball called the SG Test LE would be introduced in the domestic season and will be used for the home Tests against Sri Lanka.
"This is imported leather being used on Indian cricket balls for the first time," the official said. "There have been many trials over the last one year in smaller games and side games and even in Test conditions with the manufacturer. We saw the reports and obviously it looks like a much-improved product. Too many balls were losing shape and not surviving long enough, but we are confident that this ball will remain durable."