To stake a claim on the illustrious Ranji Trophy is no mean feat. To be able to play quality first-class cricket consistently for three months you need to put in plenty of effort into your pre-season preparation and fitness training, work on your team combinations, and ensure you have a strong bench of reserves to endure the backbreaking schedule.
So when a team like Mumbai win the trophy 40 times - the second-best side, Delhi, haven't won half as many - other state teams should be looking at the reasons behind their successes and turning them into a blueprint to follow.
Things were a little easier till a few years ago with regards to the standard of competition and scheduling of matches, but massive changes to the tournament's rules, points system, pitches and scheduling have made winning it much more challenging today. So kudos to Mumbai for not only winning the Ranji Trophy this year, but also for reaching the finals of all the junior age-group tournaments. Undoubtedly the Mumbai Cricket Association is doing something right to be able to enjoy such consistency.
But as much as Mumbai's victories reinforce their dominance on the Indian domestic circuit, they also highlight the pitfalls in the prevailing structure.
Mumbai had only two outright wins from 11 games this season. The rest were decided on the basis of first-innings leads. There is no denying that on many occasions Mumbai must have played better cricket than their opponents to get three points for the lead, but is that how we'd like our first-class cricket to be set up - where pitches aren't good enough to produce outright results and where there is an inherent flaw in the points system, which encourages teams to get three "safe" points rather than aim for an outright win?
Acting on the recommendations made by its technical committee, the BCCI directed curators across the country to prepare sporting pitches this season, and all matches were scheduled on a home-and-away basis.
After India's recent overseas debacles, it was imperative to take a closer look at the kind of tracks the country's young players were fine-tuning their skills on, and the consensus was that there was an urgent need to spice up pitches in India. Unfortunately it seems the curators didn't take the brief as seriously as they should have, because this season's outright win percentage of 40% is the same as last season's.
While Mohali produced results throughout the season, Rajkot had three draws and three results. And for every pitch like Mohali, we have five others like Rajkot, which is why India's below-par overseas performances shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, a player is a product of his environment.
The board needs to start penalising state associations for dishing out highways in the guise of cricket pitches. Dock the team points, slap financial penalties on the association, and treat the grounds at par with those like Karnail Singh Stadium, which was found guilty of hosting matches on underprepared pitches.
"After India's overseas debacles, the consensus was that there was an urgent need to spice up the pitches in India. Unfortunately, this season's outright win percentage of 40% is the same as last season's"
Not enough points
Before the season began, there was a lot of talk about changing the points system, and it was decided an extra point would be given for outright wins. While it is a noble idea to encourage teams to go for wins, the actual number of outright victories haven't gone up significantly. In fact, Mumbai found their way into the knockouts by winning only one game in the league phase.
Perhaps there's a need to add a few more points for an outright win or to revamp the points system completely to raise the level of competition. I suggested a new system for points on my blog on ESPNcricinfo.
Go back to neutral venues
The decision to play knockout matches at neutral venues was a sensible one, because otherwise the hosts have an unfair advantage. The pitch for the Ranji final between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh at the Wankhede in 2007-08 had something in it for everyone and allowed Delhi to win the game even after conceding a first-innings lead. If UP had hosted the match, they would probably have prepared a turner to take advantage of Delhi's limited spin resources.
But a few years ago, on Sachin Tendulkar's suggestion, the board decided to revert to the home-away system for knockouts to bring crowds into the stadiums. Tendulkar said neutral venues kept the teams' die-hard fans away from the grounds. But most home games are still played in empty stadiums, and now the problem of unsporting pitches has returned.
In the 2010-11 Ranji semi-final, Baroda, backing their superior spin bowling attack, dished out a dustbowl to Karnataka, who were a stronger team overall. The match lasted five sessions.
Such radical surfaces even out the playing field, but the outcome was harmful for the game. There are many such examples of hosts dictating terms at the cost of the quality of cricket.
If state associations aren't ensuring substantial footfalls, it might be prudent to host these matches at neutral venues - perhaps in tier II cities. That way not only can the pitch preparation be regulated, there will probably also be decent turnouts for the games.
This Ranji Trophy was said to be the year of transformations. But while some changes proved effective, like dividing the 27 teams into three groups of nine each so that every team got enough first-class games, others left a lot to be desired.