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The Ranji Trophy is sixty five years old this season. When it began in 1934 it was not the premier domestic first class championship. That honour went to the Quadrangular, later Pentangular. And it was with the decline of the notion of playing cricket on communal lines in the mid 40's that the Ranji Trophy emerged out of the shadow of its rival and acquired its own popular appeal. Over the decades it has raised the overall standard of the game in the country and served as a stage for players to showcase their talents for selection to the national team. But today the Ranji Trophy is facing a general lack of spectator interest that is hardly befitting for a tournament of its stature. Its impoverished following among the same public who avidly watch international matches is testament to its steady fall from grace. What it needs is a generous overhaul. The Ranji Trophy would be doing a grave disservice to Indian cricket if it continues with the present format.
The problem with this format is that it is not competitive enough at the preliminary stages. For long the Ranji Trophy has been guilty of arranging contests between combatants in heavyweight and featherweight categories. There is a pressing need for the championship to be partitioned into two divisions. Or else we will continue to endure such mismatches as Delhi v Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka v Goa and Bengal vs Tripura. Even the TCCB has finally summoned up the nerve to tamper with such a venerable cow as the County Championship which will be split into two divisions of nine teams each next year. In the Ranji Trophy too the top 14 teams can be placed in the first division and divided into two groups of seven each.
The ridiculous emphasis on first innings leads is another diabolic influence. Currently, in preliminary matches, additional points are given to the side leading on first innings while in knock out matches the winner is decided on first innings. But the very fact that each side has two innings means that a first innings lead is neither necessary nor sufficient to influence the result of a match. So it is illogical for any advantage to accrue from the mere establishment of a first innings lead, sometimes by a handful of runs. The best way to eliminate its importance in preliminary matches is for points to be awarded only for runs scored in a specific number of overs, say 120 overs as in the County Championship.
However it is in knockout matches that the absurdity of the first innings rule has been felt most acutely. Sides tend to bat too defensively and for too long so that they reach a position from which they can shut out the opponent on the first innings. Trying to get an outright victory is the last thing on the minds of the two captains. And the match as a spectacle descends into the realms of low farce. The quintessential example is the final of the Ranji Trophy between Karnataka and Delhi in 1981-82 which had to be extended into a 6th day because five days of play had not produced a result even on first innings with both sides making in excess of 700. Indeed there have been other instances when the match has been decided on the spin of a coin because it could not be decided even on first innings within the stipulated time. Bombay was knocked out of the Ranji Trophy in this fashion by Baroda in the 1945-46 season after taking more than two full days in a four day match to make 645. Baroda, giving first priority to the preservation of wickets, finished the 4th day at 465-6, trusting their luck with the coin to see them through.
In addition to making a mockery of a match, the first innings rule can also result in a perversion of justice. Karnataka won an outright victory in the Ranji final last year, bowling out Madhya Pradesh with just one ball to spare after conceding the first innings lead. What a travesty it would have been if Madhya Pradesh had held on with nine wickets down and won the trophy by virtue of their first innings lead! However the problem that remains is how then to decide the result of a knockout match that ends in a draw? The most conclusive way of dealing with a tiresome problem is to kill it. In other words eliminate knockout matches to eliminate contrived results. The alternative would be for the side which comes out on top in the league to lift the trophy. This would have the added advantage of concentrating public interest on the entire league rather than on just one or two knockout matches.
The blueprint could be as follows. The 14 teams in the 1st division are divided into two groups of 7 each and each team plays the other 6 teams once. At the end of the group matches, the top three teams in Group A will each play the top three teams in Group B in the Super Six, carrying over the points that they have won against the other qualifiers from their group, as in the World Cup. The team that has accumulated the most points at the end of the Super Six is declared the winner. Batting and bowling points will be awarded for performances in the first 120 overs of the 1st innings, in addition to points for an outright victory. The bottom three teams in the first division can have relegation playoffs with the top three teams of the 2nd division. And as a footnote I would like to add that if all first division matches can be played under floodlights from say 3.30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. that would certainly boost daily attendances no end.