On Boxing Day five years ago, former India and Orissa batsman SS Das scored a triple-century. It took him 500 balls and close to 12 hours. It featured gradual acceleration. He scored 126 on the first day, and got to the triple on the second, leaving enough time to spare for his side to have a brief go at the Jammu & Kashmir batsmen. It was a tiring effort, as triple-centuries should be. Das didn't bat in the second innings, an inconsequential affair once Orissa decided to not enforce the follow-on. His state association awarded him Rs 30,000.
Not that Das is the reason for what has followed, but his innings - the first triple-century in the Ranji Trophy in more than six years - is to Ranji triples what the birth of Jesus Christ is to time: Before Das and After Das is a neat division. Before Das only 18 triples had been scored in more than 70 seasons; Ravindra Jadeja's 314 last week was the ninth After Das, in less than five seasons, a development that alarms some and encourages others.
Eleven of the 18 triples before Das' were scored batting second; all nine after it have come batting first. The template earlier was to bowl the opposition out cheaply, secure first-innings points and then allow yourself long enough to bat to score those triple-centuries. Of the seven before-Das triples when batting first, two were scored in five-day games, which gave the batsmen plenty of time; only one of the nine corresponding triples after Das' has come in a five-day match. Further, three of the pre-Das triples came in the late-eighties, when batting and bowling fetched teams a different set of points, which meant you didn't necessary need to bowl sides out to win points. On the real flat tracks, teams hardly bothered at times.
These statistics may not explain much but they are indicative of the change in attitude that has come about with the advent of one-day and later Twenty20 cricket. Batsmen are scoring runs quicker than ever, and can thus hit triples within such time as to allow their sides a decent go at first-innings points, if not an outright win, although Jadeja's effort didn't quite fir that pattern: the Cuttack track was so flat that Saurashtra couldn't bowl Orissa out in 199 overs.
Wasim Jaffer is the only batsman to have scored a triple-century each before and after Das'. He agrees there has been a change. Unlike his first, the second triple-century was scored batting first and took about 50 balls and 40 minutes fewer. "In the first one, I stayed on the field throughout the game," Jaffer remembers. "I fielded two and a quarter days, and the rest of the time I batted. I was only 18 or 19, so physically it was not that challenging. Now probably if I had to do it again, I'll have to push myself. It will test my stamina and fitness." So now he scores quicker.
Scoring fast cannot be done in a vacuum. There is a deeper disturbing trend three triple-centurions point to. "When I started there were quality spinners all around," Jaffer says. "Murali Kartik at his best. We [Mumbai] had Nilesh Kulkarni, Sairaj Bahutule, Ramesh Powar came in. Sunil Subramaniam, Rahul Sanghvi, Sarandeep Singh. Harbhajan [Singh] was young then. Almost every team had a decent spinner, and they never gave away easy runs. To score 300 you have to bat against a lot of spin. I personally feel the quality of spin bowling in India is going down."
Sanjay Manjrekar, who scored his 377 against Venkatapathy Raju, Arshad Ayub and Kanwaljit Singh, has a similar tale to tell. "When I made my debut, against Haryana, there was Rajinder Goel, who had 750 wickets," he says. "There was Sarkar Talwar, who had 350-400 wickets. Then I played Raghuram Bhat at that level. I played Gopal Sharma. They didn't bowl a bad ball. That's what stands out with these people. Gopal Sharma is the best offspinner I have faced, and Maninder Singh the best left-arm spinner. There was one match I played against Rajesh Chauhan. He bowled about 50 overs but didn't give me one short ball. Not one short ball in that big hundred I got."
Aakash Chopra, who scored his triple for Rajasthan, is surprised because he noticed a different set of trends just before the triples started coming. "For two-three years fast bowlers did well because of SG Test balls," he says. "Also, after T20 happened, I felt teams weren't scoring that many runs, or at least the teams weren't lasting that many overs."
He is convinced now that that change was temporary, and that spinners have become even more important. "The pitches haven't changed much at all. On these pitches, beyond a point fast bowlers can't do much. It's up to the spinners to come out and take wickets. To entice you, to beat you in the flight. Especially when a batsman is in an aggressive mood and is going after the bowling - you get more chances of mishits." The change of balls cannot be blamed because the pronounced seam on the SG ball remains a spinner's friend, as Harbhajan Singh has often said.
Then again it's not a phenomenon restricted to the Ranji Trophy. More and faster triple-centuries are being scored in Test cricket too. It is a natural trickle-down from the highest levels, where the batsmen have lost all fear and bowlers have failed to catch up. As Manjrekar points out, "Sehwag and Gayle are scoring triples, not Dravid." Sehwag and Gayle don't score triples waiting for the bad balls - which the the spinners of old didn't provide.
"During our time 300 was all about patience," Manjrekar says. "Now it is about scoring runs. During our time it was all about playing time. You needed the patience to grind. I could have played quicker, and scored whatever I did quicker, but that wasn't the trend then."
Chopra, who himself scored an old-fashioned triple that went into the third day, is left marvelling. "Surprisingly, they are able to sustain that kind of strike rate for longer durations," he says. "For a short while you can go and smash at 70-80-90 strike rate, but to do it over a day, a day and a half, I am sure that is difficult."
Peter Roebuck, the columnist and former Somerset captain, described a Test triple as being the work of a lifetime expressed in a single innings. It's just that nowadays such voluminous work can be expressed in 322 balls, as Rohit Sharma did at the Brabourne Stadium in 2009-10. He once lasted just 294 balls in a whole Ranji season. In about a day now, he had faced more balls and scored nearly twice as many runs. Now the work of a lifetime doesn't necessarily involve seeing off tough spells and pacing an innings by sessions and new balls.
Chopra wants more balance on this front. Despite all the respect he says he has for the sustenance of high strike rates over such long periods, he wants to see the bowlers strike back. The first round of this year's Ranji Trophy has produced only one result out of 13 matches. That one result was made possible by Rohit's quick 175.
Mumbai's captain, Jaffer, looks at the positives of quick scoring. "The younger generation is looking to score quickly, which is good for the game," he says. "There are fewer dull draws. The game is going in the right direction, as long as you score runs quickly and give your bowlers time to take 20 wickets."
Jadeja's triple, though, was eventually worthless for his team because it didn't fetch them any points. It has earned him respect, though. "It's great to see that they want to get the 300s in the era of T20," Manjrekar says. "You can say quality of attack and all that, but you have got to admire the batsmen who have grown up in this T20 atmosphere but are still scoring big. My respect for Jadeja has grown. You can't scoff at a 300. It is a special innings."
But "special" is a word that might need revisiting some time in the future. Three hundred used to be a special total in ODIs once upon a time. Now it's merely par for the course. The Ranji triple-century hasn't yet reached that level of abuse, and might never do. As with ODIs, though, should we brace ourselves for a quadruple, something the Ranji Trophy last saw in 1948-49?