Neutral venues producing results in Ranji Trophy (Column: Just Sport)

The 2016-17 Ranji Trophy season played at neutral venues is being watched with a lot of curiosity. The teams are into their fourth round of matches and its time for some stock-taking.

The seed of neutral venues was sown by none other than Rahul Dravid and he had a valid reason: That in the name of home advantage, teams had been doctoring the pitches to suit their strengths, killing the competitive edge.

The technical committee of the BCCI, headed by Sourav Ganguly, took his suggestion seriously and recommended that the Ranji Trophy matches be played at neutral venues. The Board promptly accepted this.

How has it been going? The responses and reactions are mixed. Some media reports talked of teams not getting enough to eat and also that the food was not to their liking.

Then, there were teams which complained of being travel-weary, going by road from the nearest airport and railroad stations. A couple of others have problems with the placid wickets or too much moisture in the pitch on the first morning.

The teams cannot complain of accommodation as it is the job of their associations to billet them in the right hotels. On that count, they cannot crib as they are put up at top five-star hotel chains.

Even the complaints about pitches have been muted. As for food, it is a perennial problem for teams from down south not getting cusine of their choice up north and vice-versa.

As for travel, players are all frequent fliers these days. These comforts should prepare them to play in all sorts of conditions and even get used to the food.

Dravid should know what he is talking about when he says how the matches are getting killed in the name of home advantage. Karnataka themselves were victims of a poor track during his playing days when they went to Kerala, where the pitch could not be distinguished from the rest of the grassy outfield!

During the 1981-82 season, Karnataka served Bombay a crazy pitch where the ball turned square and Sunil Gavaskar batted left-handed in the last innings to counter the vicious turn of left-arm spinner Raghuram Bhatt. Then, there have been pitches where the teams just about managed to finish one innings in four days just as some teams did this season too.

There was a phase in domestic cricket when calculators were in frequent use. Former India opener Arun Lal was the master with calculator and won a couple of key matches for Bengal making sure the run rate was up with the quotient rule.

From time to time, the Board tried to introduce all sorts of rules to make the game interesting. The 1990-91 season was bizarre.

Bengal beat Karnataka on the quotient rule, scoring 652 for nine in reply to 791 for six on first innings lead.

Then, there was a penalty rule for failing to maintain the over-rate, 12 runs deducted from a team’s total for every over short, and Hyderabad, set to score 255 by Andhra, ended up at 150 for seven and still won the match! Andhra had bowled 10 overs short and 120 runs were added to Hyderabad’s score.

One Andhra captain forfeited his team’s second innings in a bid to grab a bonus point by taking a couple of wickets in the second innings, but Kerala reached the meager target and the match had dubiously gone down as an allegedly fixed game.

The 1990-91 season saw teams merrily batting through to score upwards of seven hundred six times, 14 times crossing the 600-mark and 500 plus 36 times. It was a mind-boggling, indeed.

Delhi coach K.P. Bhaskar, one of those truly unlucky cricketers not have played Tests, says he has no problems with the new arrangement, despite his team getting bundled out for 90 by Karnataka at the Eden Gardens.

Bhaskar, a good reader of the game, is on record that his batsmen are to be blamed for the shoddy batting on a first morning wicket. They could not last two sessions. In all the matches, he says, they got good pitches and that should satisfy the pessimists.

One good thing: The players today are more concerned about their future rather than knowing about how the game was played in the past. They are more focused and are not overly bothered about playing at neutral venues. They, in fact, seem excited about gaining experience playing in different conditions.

More than half the number of matches played so far resulted decisively and that should make the teams happy.

The one major issue is the crowds. Yes, playing at home has the advantage of family members and friends watching the players, but then there are no people to watch Tets matches at major centres. Just as new Test centres are attracting crowds, slowly domestic matches at smaller centres will bring crowds to the stadiums.

Most state associations have developed first-rate stadiums in various district headquarters and soon they will all be venues for Ranji Trophy matches.

One Board official takes credit for running domestic cricket without any hassles, despite all the court problems and restrictions on spending money, and for him this is proof enough that the Board is the best run sports organisation!

(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at sveturi@gmail.com)

–IANS

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