I have been following this season's Ranji Trophy matches involving Tamil Nadu, my home state, with considerable interest. While I watched parts of the match against Baroda
at Chepauk, I did not get to see any of the action in their game versus Mumbai
. Both were closely fought encounters, with Tamil Nadu winning the first and losing the second by the narrowest of margins. Both matches fluctuated this way and that.
The match against Baroda was played on an underprepared wicket, and in my view, the team that played slightly better cricket won, though neither side showed the technical nous to bat or bowl well on a raging turner. Tamil Nadu posted 434 in the first innings against Mumbai but collapsed for 95 in the second. Mumbai came back from desperate straits to triumph in the end, as they have done ever so often in the past. Though I did not watch the match, it's clear the ball had the upper hand after the first innings.
I cannot escape the feeling that there is too much doctoring of wickets in domestic cricket for the good health of the game. Back in the 1970s too, pitches were prepared to suit the home side, and matches were occasionally played on minefields, reducing the game to a lottery. I remember how Tamil Nadu were outplayed by Bombay at Chepauk on a turner, with Paddy Shivalkar and Co making better use of the surface than the spinners of the opposition (or the Bombay batsmen negotiating the spitefully turning, jumping ball better than their Tamil Nadu counterparts, depending on your viewpoint). The difference today is that such strategies seem to be deployed rather indiscriminately, and earlier in the season, before the teams have settled down. In the past, say, in the 1970s, the leading teams resorted to such tactics only in key, do-or-die matches.
The old system of five zones and a league phase of contests among teams in each zone was not without its faults, but it had the one advantage of a certain opportunity to play familiar teams in the early part of the season. By the time the knockout came round, you were reasonably match-hardened, and could take on less-familiar teams in alien conditions, be they the pata wickets of central India or the seam-friendly wickets of the north, instead of being surprised early in the season, as happens today. Thus, Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the Big Three in the South Zone, generally played on level terms, while trying to get the maximum of eight points for an outright win, plus a bonus point for quick scoring against the weaker Kerala and Andhra.
The bonus point was an interesting aspect of the game. It was awarded to a team that scored at four an over - throughout its innings, if it batted first, or up to the point where it took the first-innings lead batting second. The general plan for the stronger teams was to stick weaker opposition in on winning the toss, bowl them out for a smallish total, and then surpass that score while maintaining a run rate of four per over. (Only when today's cricket follower learns that mark was was rarely, if ever, achieved by the top teams against one another will he get an idea of how tough such an asking rate was in those days.) The minnows often elected to field on winning the toss in order to make it difficult for the opposition to maintain the necessary run rate while at the same time deciding when to declare. In the south, batsmen like Brijesh Patel, GR Viswanath, the Singh brothers Milkha and Satvinder, ML Jaisimha and Abid Ali became quite expert at pacing their innings before launching into outright aggression in such scenarios.
The bonus point was an interesting aspect of the game. It was awarded to a team that scored at four an over - throughout its innings, if it batted first, or up to the point where it took the first-innings lead batting second
The minnows eventually grew wings, by the simple expedient of migration. The Andhra boys moved to Hyderabad and the Kerala lads to Chennai, where job opportunities offered by banks and firms building cricket teams beckoned. Through the decades, outstanding cricketers like Mahendra Kumar, H Ramprasad, MN Ravikumar, D Meher Baba, Jugal Ghiya and Bhaskar Ramamurty benefited from playing regularly in the more competitive Hyderabad league, as did the likes of K Jayaram, Tinu Yohanan, Anantapadmanabhan and Sreesanth in the Chennai league. That had a role to play in why, in time, Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad and Karnataka came to face stiff competition to qualify for the knockouts of the Ranji Trophy, in which two teams from each of the five zones competed. Later the number of qualifiers was increased to three per zone, a far cry from the early years of the Ranji Trophy: it was first a knockout all the way, and then became a league-cum-knockout in the 1950s, with one team from each zone qualifying.
The old format had its shortcomings; for instance, a good player could elude the national selectors' radar altogether if his team did not enter the knockout. Among the positives was your knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent in the league phase as well as the playing conditions, which facilitated a gradual transition to the greyer area of the knockout matches. The zone teams for the Duleep Trophy and Deodhar Trophy too tended to be cohesive, because the players came together in the league stage of the Ranji Trophy even if only against each other, though the significance of those tournaments on the national stage has since diminished.
Decades ago, the business end of the Ranji Trophy was more or less certain to feature many of the bright lights of Indian cricket - Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, VV Kumar and Venkataraghavan, Hanumant Singh and Durani, Bedi, the Amarnath brothers, Rajinder Goel, Kapil Dev, and any number of superstars from Bombay - and that is what made the prospect of the contest so exciting. Today, two relatively unglamorous sides like Railways and Madhya Pradesh can figure in the final, with Test players almost always absent. Still, does it make it any less of a consummation to be wished for, so long as the final provides an absorbing contest?
V Ramnarayan bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s. His latest book is Third Man, Recollections from a Life in Cricket