Dousing the home fires

Last Saturday, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced a slew of measures aimed at revitalising the domestic game. Those decisions went largely unnoticed as the spotlight fell on the more high-profile decisions surrounding the national team, yet they deserve discussion.

The measures announced suggest a giant waking from a slumber yet, though the BCCI has tried to address some of the serious issues, many important ones remain untouched.

The decision to "ensure that all Test/ODI cricketers play Irani, Duleep, Challenger, and some Ranji Trophy matches" aims to cure just one of the symptoms of a larger disease - the scheduling. However, what the statement does not mention is whether the Board will sort out the flip side of the problem: the plethora of international matches every season. "Whenever there is so much as a seven-day break, the board arranges a tri-series tournament," VB Chandrasekhar, the then national selector, had said last October.

Case in point: The Ranji Trophy semifinals this past season coincided with the Indian team's return from South Africa. With several international players available, the stage was set for a grand finale to the season, which would be telecast live on TV. Yet the BCCI planned two ODI series, against West Indies and Sri Lanka, running at the same time, robbing the Ranji semifinals both of the big stars and the TV coverage. And one of those matches, against West Indies, caused an important Ranji match in Chennai to be shifted from Chepauk, which would stage the ODI, to a school ground.

So will the BCCI be prepared to compromise on the millions it makes out of a cramped international season? If yes, then one can believe that the availability of international stars will improve domestic cricket.

Instead of diluting the identity and character of the Duleep Trophy it's better to scrap it and make the Ranji season a bit less cramped

It doesn't end there. The Duleep Trophy, supposed to be the highest-level first-class tournament, is robbed of gloss because of its timing. An inter-zone tournament should have the best performing players of the season participating but, by being staged at the the season's start, the selections are based on the previous season's numbers. Also, the Duleep Trophy was the step between the Ranji Trophy and international cricket, and was a prize of sorts for doing well in the Ranji; instead of diluting the identity and character of the Duleep Trophy it's better to scrap it and make the Ranji season a bit less cramped.

It's probably that last point that's behind the proposal to reduce the number of teams in the Elite league to 10. This could be a good step but it does throw up certain questions: Where will the other five teams go now? Will they increase the number of Plate League teams to 18 or will there be another tier? If so, will the BCCI be able to manage three leagues? One possible solution, as yet unexplored, is to restrict each state to one team; Gujarat and Maharashtra each send three teams to the Ranji Trophy, of which only three are top-notch. A reduction here will lift the level of competition and solve half the problem.

Yet perhaps even that won't work unless the points system in Ranji cricket is changed. The current system awards four points for an outright win and two for the first-innings lead, but those two points are docked if the game is subsequently lost. That prompts captains to play it safe and play for two points.

Another related issue yet to be touched on is the standard of umpiring in first-class cricket. It is not a coincidence that India is unrepresented on the ICC's panel of Elite umpires, and has been so for the past couple of years. The simple reason is that umpiring, as a component of the game, gets short shrift from the powers that be. Australia have three umpires on the Elite panel; those umpires come from a system that has a central umpiring officer and six umpiring coaches (one for each state) to groom and develop officials. They watch every ball bowled in domestic cricket, and use video footage to maintain a log of every decision taken.

In India, by contrast, just one match in every round was televised this current season, and not the semifinals. Also, umpires' appraisals still depend largely on the reports filed by team captains, which is hardly the most objective approach.

The decision to direct every state association "to prepare fast and lively wickets for domestic tournaments" has perhaps been taken with the best of intentions yet is, to be charitable, ambiguous. The difference between a good and a fast wicket is blurring in India; does Indian cricket want to move away from its traditional strength, the spinners? Does the BCCI want Australia-like wickets? The spinners' marginalisation in India has already reached famous proportions; there is, for example, no replacement for Anil Kumble. In 1995-96, spinners took 67 per cent of all wickets in the Ranji Trophy; exactly a decade later that figure was 42 per cent.

One reason, according to some players and state administrators, is the host associations' penchant for preparing substandard wickets to suit their own teams. A neutral enforcing committee is a much better option than "directing" the state associations.

While on the subject of pitches, spare a thought for what the bowlers have to bowl with. The SG ball used for Ranji Trophy matches has trouble lasting in Indian conditions and is anyway not the ball of choice in international cricket. Last season Kookaburra balls, which are standard use elsewhere, were tried but, typically, too few were ordered with the result that players were practising with the SG balls a day before an important Duleep Trophy match..

There is no doubt that Indian domestic cricket needs a revamp, and there is probably no doubt that the decisions announced on Saturday represent a small step in that direction. Yet it is just that - a small step on a long journey. The rut has resulted from years of neglect; it won't go in a day of high-profile decisions.