'Result-oriented' pitches leave Ranji Trophy in a spin

Obsession with outright wins has made state associations desperate, and rank turners have been their weapon of choice

Arun Venugopal
Aditya Sarwate appeals for a caught-behind, Vidarbha v Assam, Ranji Trophy 2015-16, Group A, Nagpur, 2nd day, October 23, 2015

Spinner-friendly tracks are one thing, but those used in the Ranji Trophy have led to an imbalance between bat and ball  •  PTI

Seven Ranji Trophy matches have finished in two days this year, which is more than the last four seasons put together. Teams have been bowled out for 100 or less 14 times, the lowest being Odisha's 37 against Bengal in Kalyani. Spinners have taken 1209 wickets in eight rounds this year. That count was only 1157 and 1187 over entire seasons in 2014-15 and 2013-14.
The seamers have had their share struck down accordingly: from 2064, 1964 and 1942 in the last three seasons to just 1440 wickets in 2015-16. Spinners have taken 14 ten-fors to the fast bowlers' three. Those numbers tended to be more evenly distributed - eight and seven, and nine and 11 in the last two seasons. The Test winds are blowing at the first-class level too.
Two-day finishes
Season Matches
 2015-16  7
 2014-15  1
 2013-14  1
 2012-13  1
 2011-12  1
Variation in match hauls
Season Ten-fors per match by Quicks Ten-fors per match by Spinners
 2015-16  3  14
 2014-15  7  8
 2013-14  11  9
 2012-13  9  5
 2011-12  8  3
To some this sudden reversal is spin reclaiming its place of pride in India after the obsession with preparing the players to face fast bowlers on green tracks abroad. Admirable as the intentions were, it led to what they believe was unfair advantage for the quicks. To others - and former captain Rahul Dravid is one of them - this is a false dawn and has more to do with the poor quality of pitches. To the more practical, this is a season when state associations have lost sight of the balance between wanting to win and wanting to provide a breeding ground for international cricketers. When they need a win they stop watering the pitch.
Dravid, coach of the India Under-19 and A sides, feels this is an unhealthy trend. "All around in the Ranji Trophy this year teams are producing poor wickets - square turners where matches are finishing in two or three days," he says. "I don't think it's good for the health of Indian cricket."
Assam coach Sanath Kumar remembers the captains and coaches enclave at the start of the season. "A lot of guys were saying that green-top wickets were not helping the spinners," he says. "Their reasoning was that even a lot of line-and-length bowlers, who bowled at speeds of around 110 or 120 [kph], were beginning to look threatening on a green wicket.
"Many captains asked why they couldn't play on a turner, which would challenge everybody. Even someone like Bhaji [Harbhajan Singh] felt as a captain he couldn't even bowl himself on the pitches we had last year, and he had to keep bowling the seamers if Punjab had to win."
Andhra captain Mohammad Kaif feels the compensation has gone too far. "You get either completely seaming pitches or rank turners. You want to be in the middle," he says. "Too much contrast this.
"You see the number of overs bowled by spinners and the matches are getting over in two-and-a-half days. Is it good for Indian cricket? I don't want to complain or anything but this has been different from last year. This [tournament] is the place where Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwara Pujara have come through and are playing for the country. So this should be the first priority of people who care about Indian cricket."
Wickets for pace and spin
Season Wickets for pace Wickets for spinSpin to pace wickets ratio
 2015-16  1440  1209  0.84
 2014-15  1942  1157  0.60
 2013-14  1964  1187  0.60
 2012-13  2064  995  0.48
 2011-12  1505  785  0.52
Team totals under 100 have peaked
Season Innings All out for < 100Percentage
 2015-16  337  14  4.15
 2014-15  400  9  2.25
 2013-14  398  13  3.27
 2012-13  394  9  2.28
 2011-12  298  11  2.69
The defence of these pitches is the same as the ones at Test level, which at least are going into three days. 'We want result-oriented pitches,' is the refrain everywhere but according to Sanath that is too simplistic a view. "The team going down [facing relegation] will prepare those [underprepared] wickets, and some teams which want to qualify for the knockouts will also prepare pitches like that," he says. "There is so much pressure on coaches to perform, and they will take a call."
Dravid raises the bigger question. "At the Ranji Trophy level, we are looking to prepare the players for the international stage. The reason for the Ranji Trophy is not only to decide the winner in the end. And if we keep playing on bad wickets like these, we are not going to develop and produce good cricketers."
The points system provides added incentive to outright wins now, six as opposed to the earlier five. That's double the three points for a first-innings lead. Not to mention when there is a tie between two teams at the end of the group stages, qualification hinges on the number of victories. So perhaps some sides have been moved into producing rank turners to sweeten their chances.
"Take a scenario where one team consistently takes the first-innings lead in seven games but lose the eighth, and they end with 21 points," Sanath says. "Whereas another team that loses five games outright might win three with bonus points, and they will finish on 21, too. So, they will qualify by virtue of the outright wins.
"If you reduce the points for a win, people will at least think of playing well and getting the lead in a few games apart from the one or two outright wins. Here, there is too much of emphasis on outright wins and as a result they resort to preparing poor pitches.
"That's why this year even after [collecting] 25 points nobody is sure of qualifying. I made this point to the technical committee even two years ago, but they advised the coaches to look at the larger picture of outright results. The BCCI's idea to have result-oriented pitches is good, but the way the teams are achieving it is not good. It should be streamlined and monitored well."
Result percentages across seasons
Season Matches ResultsDrawPercentage
 2015-16  96  48  48  50
 2014-15 115  56  59 48.7
 2013-14  113  61  52  53.98
 2012-13  115  46  69 40
 2011-12  88  35  53 39.77
Runs per wicket across seasons
Season Runs per wicket
 2015-16  30.19
 2014-15  30.30
 2013-14  31.00
 2012-13  33.04
 2011-12  33.79
This is the tightrope Ranji Trophy has to walk. Outright results matter, but in trying to ensure one extreme pitches have been rolled out, which as Dravid says, might be detrimental to the player development. Monitoring well, as Sanath mentions, doesn't seem to have happened this season. Umpires and match referees tend to play it safe. It isn't often that a centre is banned because of poor pitch conditions; the most recent example was that of the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi more than three years ago.
There are other factors at play too. It is mostly the presidents of the respective state associations who influence the appointments of match officials. "The referee doesn't want to get into involved in controversies," says a senior player and a captain of one of the teams this season. "He has to officiate in the future as well. Same case with the umpires."
This particular year has been open season because the BCCI has been preoccupied with legal issues and internecine battles. The proposed revision in the points system wasn't even deliberated upon because of an adjourned working committee meeting. Another consideration may be the BCCI is wary of ruffling the feathers of its member bodies, which are seen as vote banks to be nurtured.
"I don't think the BCCI has often taken complaints against pitches seriously enough," a seasoned coach of a state side said. "I have seen instances of pitches being doctored during the middle of the game in the past as well, but neither the match referee nor the BCCI has initiated any action."
An early start to the season, avoiding the foggy conditions in North India and keeping the domestic Twenty20 tournament just before the World T20 have also had a hand in the spin-dominated year of Ranji Trophy cricket. Kaif and Mumbai captain Aditya Tare accept those reasons, but Kaif says it doesn't explain the inconsistent bounce on the pitches. "Pitches in four-day games must help bowlers, but when the ball misbehaves on these dry turners it becomes very unfair for the batsmen."
Another senior player says some of these underprepared surfaces pose physical danger to the batsmen. "It's okay if a ball keeps low all the time, but if it bounces awkwardly then you are in real danger of getting hurt. This season I was playing on a surface where the ball pitched on a length and bounced over the head."
While BCCI officials didn't respond to ESPNcricinfo's questions, a senior member of the board's Grounds & Pitches committee, who didn't wish to be named, doesn't acknowledge a trend. "Six [seven] out of 100 matches in a year have got over inside two days. This is an aberration. This is some match here and there which nobody wants. We also don't want. There is no pattern to this. BCCI is seriously looking into this." He also reveals there have been "some discussions on the pitches in Ranchi, Rajkot and Kalyani" where matches ended in two days. "There are four or five matches that have come under scrutiny. Over a period of time, some associations have started to talk of preparing pitches to suit them and press the home advantage. BCCI will take a look into this and see how to balance it out."
Rajkot has had two two-day finishes, withRavindra Jadeja accruing 26 wickets from them. But Niranjan Shah, senior administrator and president of the Saurashtra Cricket Association for whom Rajkot is the home ground, defends the surface.
"This is proper turner wicket. It is not underprepared," Shah says. "Batsmen are not used to this type of bowling, so it's more or less like a surprise for them. People are giving mostly underprepared wickets where ball keeps low. Here the ball will fly but never keep low or shoot. [There has been an] obsession with pace, and I have got a good spin side why should there not be an advantage?
"See, we have lost a little bit [of the art of] playing spinners. Is spinning wicket not a wicket to play on? Why should it only be a grassy wicket? BCCI basically wants a sporting wicket and a more result-oriented wicket. I don't think referee or umpire has had any problem."
A curator of a state association says it is difficult to roll out a quality surface because of the pressure on the groundstaff. "The BCCI might have guidelines for how a wicket ought to be prepared, but ultimately it's the state associations that pay us our salaries, and we need to listen to their instructions."
The trend is there. Whether it is a problem or not is for the men at the top to decide. If we agree with Dravid and Sanath, who feel it is a problem, here is some advice from them.
"We don't want green tops but we don't want [underprepared] wickets either where matches finish in two days, and people bowling darts get six-seven wickets," Dravid says. "I think we need to be very careful that we don't go down that path."
"There is no point in having a neutral curator to merely come and oversee the venue two days before a game," Sanath says. "He should be assigned complete responsibility of the venue right with the local groundstaff to help him in pitch-preparation."
With statistical inputs from Bharath Seervi

Arun Venugopal is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo