Teams devoid of momentum brace for challenges of split season

Abhimanyu Easwaran, Karun Nair bat for day-night first class games in future

Himanshu Agrawal
Bengal are the only team in the quarter-final to have had three outright wins in the league stage this season  •  PTI

Bengal are the only team in the quarter-final to have had three outright wins in the league stage this season  •  PTI

The 2020-21 season was the first time that the Ranji Trophy had to be shelved because Covid-19 had intervened in the way of India's premier first-class competition. Though it returned the following season, the BCCI decided to hold it in a truncated format. Teams played just three group games as opposed to the usual eight and needed at least two outright wins to make it to the quarter-finals.
"That's been a big challenge because it's important for you to start with your A-game from the first match itself," Bengal captain Abhimanyu Easwaran tells ESPNcricinfo. "With eight games, teams used to peak at the right time - you could say probably around the fifth game - and in about two or three outright wins, we were there [qualified for the next stage]. And qualification was also a little easier because the number of teams that would qualify from a group was more."
But senior Karnataka batter Karun Nair looked at the brighter picture despite the fact that teams would have to top their respective groups to qualify for the knockouts. Even then, Jharkhand had to face Nagaland in the pre-quarter-final since seven other group toppers performed better.
"The format was nice in that the top team qualifies and gets to play the knockouts," he said. "It does put pressure on teams, but we always look to win every game we play. So the amount of pressure on us is the same every time we go out there and play."
It was not just about the fewer group games. The two-month long IPL season was squeezed between the Ranji Trophy, split between the league stage and the knockouts. That, in turn, meant teams in good form would end up losing momentum, and most players without IPL contracts would find themselves with an unwanted break.
Bengal, for instance, registered three consecutive victories on their way to making it to the quarters. They beat Baroda by four wickets in a successful chase of 349, defended 239 against Hyderabad, and triumphed over Chandigarh by 152 runs.
"It has been challenging because we had the momentum. We had been playing really good cricket, and won three outright games," Easwaran said. "But that's there for every single team that has qualified. We are not too much worried about that."
Like six other Indian players without IPL contracts, Easwaran hopped across the border to participate in the Dhaka Premier League (DPL), Bangladesh's List-A competition, to keep himself in touch with the game while most others competed in the IPL.
"I was looking to play some good standard cricket, and playing with and against a lot of international cricketers," Easwaran said of his short overseas trip. "It was a really good tournament, and I played a few club games in Calcutta [after that]. You can say that we would love to be a part of the IPL, but that is not in the individual's hand."
While an entire IPL season thrown in between a first-class competition presented the challenge of switching between formats in a short span of time, there was also the question of player fatigue. Those part of the T20 tournament as well as their Ranji sides had to play three first-class fixtures in a row before moving over to the IPL, where teams were scheduled to play 14 group matches in what was a ten-team event unlike the eight it has been since 2014.
For instance, Nair's Karnataka team-mate Prasidh Krishna pulled out of the upcoming Ranji quarter-final against Uttar Pradesh citing workload management. Prasidh was picked in India's squad of 17 for the upcoming fifth Test against England which starts July 1, with the national team set to depart in the second week of June.
"You have to adjust to circumstances. We all are really happy for Prasidh getting selected for the Indian team," Nair said. "It is the team management's call to give him this break after a really long IPL."
But is a split Ranji competition a concept worth exploring in the future? England and Australia have been breaking their first-class tournaments with the shorter-format events completed in between, a concept in place for a number of years now.
Historically, India has been hosting the Ranji final in February or March, when it gets darker in the evenings much earlier than in May or June. However, flip the coin and you notice that monsoon starts knocking on the door by this time of the year.
"If we play in May or June, we won't get too many venues to play in and you would have to do away with the home-and-away rules because I don't think you can play in a place like Bengal in June," Easwaran said.
'Day-night games in Ranji would be great'
With day-night Tests occasionally being hosted by some of the top nations - Australia have hosted at least one such fixture every home summer since 2015-16 - adapting to the pink ball and playing under floodlights become key.
India has hosted only three day-night Tests so far, with the Ranji Trophy yet to stage any such match. Only the now-scrapped Duleep Trophy has had day-night first-class matches; 12 such games were split across 2016, 2017 and 2018.
"It's something that is going to be more incorporated in the coming years," Nair said. "There is going to be more and more day-night Tests happening in India. I am sure we'll also get day-night Ranji games."
Easwaran also looked forward to a couple of pink-ball matches every Ranji season, reasoning it would be good practice for someone selected for the national team, especially since day-night Tests might happen more frequently in the times to come.
"BCCI can take a few steps to get in at least one or two pink-ball games because if somebody gets picked [for India], he will have a better exposure and a better experience to take forward," he said. "One or two games in a year would be great if India consider playing a pink-ball Test every series.
"I don't think most guys have played with a pink ball in a day-night game. Conditions change, it is a different ball, and we are playing at a different time. You get to learn a lot."

Himanshu Agrawal is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo