The 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season produced 19 double-centuries. That included nine 250-plus scores and a staggering five triple-hundreds. Six hundred was scored in three of the four quarter-finals; all those games were drawn. It seemed ironic, at the time, that the season had begun with the BCCI requesting its pitch and grounds committee to visit all venues and oversee the preparation of "sporting" pitches.
But they stuck at it, and the results are beginning to show. The difference has been spectacular. Out of 114 matches played this season, 60 have produced outright results. Last season, there were 45 outright results in 115 matches. "I'm happy to see it," says Sanjay Jagdale, who was secretary of the BCCI at the time of the push for sporting surfaces. "This should be top priority, to have good wickets, which have decent bounce, which are fair to everybody, with a bit of help, and which test the abilities of batsmen as well as bowlers."
In a BCCI working committee meeting before the 2012-13 season, Jagdale had proposed an even more radical move, which was shot down by the technical committee. "I had wanted neutral venues also, but lot of people were not enthusiastic, so we went with this identified wickets on the basis of performance of wickets in last year's Ranji Trophy," he says. "We identified certain venues where we will have knockout matches."
Out of six knockout matches so far this season, five have ended in outright results. The sixth, the semi-final between Punjab and Karnataka in Mohali, might have too had weather not intervened. For all this to come about - and if this is to remain a lasting change in India's domestic cricket - a lot needed to fall in place.
"We tried to motivate the [state] associations also," says Jagdale. "I had not left it to curators only. I had spoken to all the secretaries and office-bearers in the working committee also, and requested them to cooperate in preparing good wickets. During the captains and coaches meeting also we spoke to the captains and coaches, that, 'Leave it to the curators, let them prepare a good wicket.'"
Captains and coaches can sometimes ask for pitches that suit the immediate need of their teams but don't necessarily make for good cricket. The curators themselves needed to know what exactly went into the preparation of a sporting pitch. In July 2012, 30 of them attended the BCCI's inaugural curators' course in Mohali. This, according to Daljit Singh, who heads the board's pitch and grounds committee, broadened the knowledge base of curators considerably.
"Earlier somebody was putting bricks, somebody was putting gravel, so [the course taught them] simple, inexpensive ways of laying a good wicket," Daljit says. "What grass to use. And then the preparation methods. How much to roll, when to roll, how to build up compaction. And then recovery period after the match, how to recover. And using the equipment off-season. Aeration, top-dressing, rehabilitation of wickets. Fertiliser, how to use fertiliser, when to use fertiliser. Overall, it was a comprehensive course."
This wasn't the first time the BCCI had taken a step in this direction. Since 1997, according to Daljit, it had conducted annual meetings for curators as well as zonal workshops, and published manuals and booklets in 13 regional languages. But the new course, he says, was far more rigorous.
"Earlier, it used to be a two-day annual meeting," he says. "Knowledge-sharing and handout and all that, but this course is a three-week affair. Proper study material, there's a manual, there are practical tests. It was a longer thing where you had to go through a course and get through. First year, 17 passed out of 31. Fourteen could not pass. This year, I think, out of 25, 17-18 passed. Seven did not get through this year."
Taposh Chatterjee, chief curator at the Rajasthan Cricket Association, topped the first-ever curators' certification course. This season, his pitch at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur produced two outright results and two drawn games, neither of which could be defined as a batathon. The highest first-innings score across the two drawn matches was 326, and both featured a fast bowler taking a five-wicket haul.
"Out of 114 matches played this season, 60 have produced outright results. Last season, there were 45 outright results in 115 matches"
Chatterjee, who is the Central Zone representative on the BCCI's pitches and grounds committee, says that curators all over India have broadened their knowledge of pitch preparation. Across the board, they have begun to adopt what he calls the three-layer method. "Old theory has gone out," Chatterjee says. "Now wicket is only three layers. Previously we used to dig it for 24 inches, keeping stone and other things. Now we are not doing that."
Pitches prepared using the three-layer method, he says, are only 16 inches deep. "Bottom layer is coarse sand, that is river sand," Chatterjee says. "That helps percolate the water. Second layer is loamy sand. The function of loamy sand is to grow the grass, and third layer is thick soil. That is eight inches. So four inches of coarse sand, four inches of loamy sand, and eight inches of clay. And you use the pitch grass, Bermuda selection 1, that is the best grass for wickets. And you get very good results."
Chatterjee says that curators have also changed their methods of rolling pitches. "Our previous conception was, by rolling, you dry the wicket," he says. "We used to roll the dry surface. Wicket sookha nahin hai, rolling kar do. Bada bada roller laao, heavy roller laao [The wicket isn't dry. Roll it. Bring big-big rollers, bring the heavy roller.]
"Now these theories have vanished. You cannot roll the dry surface. It will kill the grass. We are not using the heavy roller. Initial season when it starts, we get the pitch block to a certain density, with the heavy roller. During the season we hardly use heavy roller."
These methods have tended to produce pitches with an even grass cover and decent bounce. It is interesting that both Jagdale and Daljit have words of praise for Lahli, a venue that has gained a reputation for low-scoring matches with extravagant seam movement that doesn't die down even on day four. This season, all four matches in Lahli produced outright results. Only one of them had a team scoring a 300-plus total.
Others haven't taken quite so kindly to green pitches. Laxmi Ratan Shukla, Bengal's captain, was unhappy with the pitch for his team's quarter-final against Maharashtra at the Holkar Stadium in Indore, and said it made winning the toss too important. Bengal, sent in to bat, were rolled over for 114 on the first day, before Maharashtra built a 341-run lead and eventually won by 10 wickets.
"I read his [Shukla's] statement," Jagdale says, "but if it became a flat wicket, how did Maharashtra's bowlers get them out again? Bengal always had a chance to bounce back in the match. I think their bowling was very very average. This wicket always has something for fast bowlers even on third to fourth day, there was some bounce. Out of 30 wickets, 29 went to medium-pacers."
That number suggests that the pitch didn't change too much over the course of the match - and the toss, therefore, didn't influence the result overly - but it leads to another question. Are pitches like the one in Indore, and the mushrooming of green tops across India, marginalising spin bowlers? Only three of the top 10 wicket-takers this season are spinners. Jagdale argues that this isn't a new development. "If you look back, in last four-five years, we have never had spinners taking lots of wickets," he says. "You can't blame the wickets."
This is a fair point. In the last three seasons, there have never been more than three spinners among the top ten wicket-takers. There were five in 2010-11, and four the season before that. Jagdale says too much limited-overs cricket might be causing domestic spinners to push the ball through rather than give it a big rip, stunting their wicket-taking potential.
"English wickets are not very helpful to spinners, but we had a great bowler in Graeme Swann," Jagdale says. "Even in Australia, except in third-fourth days, you never get help, but Australia has also produced some great bowlers, because you get some bounce. Not necessary that you get spin from day one, but at least you can have bounce. Spinner can use the bounce, somebody like Anil Kumble or Shane Warne."
It remains to be seen if bouncy, sporting pitches remain a feature of the Ranji Trophy over future seasons, but the signs, for now, are encouraging. Jagdale wants the change to go deeper, and percolate down to junior cricket. This has been one of his unfulfilled aims since he resigned from the BCCI secretary's post last year. "This year we would have planned for junior cricket also, but unfortunately, they have reduced the number of members of the [pitches and grounds] committee," Jagdale says. "It has come down to five again. Last year we had 12, and this year I was planning to have 15, so that we can cover junior matches also."