Does Ranji Trophy's value lie in winning alone or enhancing the development of cricketers? The answer has to be the latter because the tournament provides a precious platform to young players as they strive to learn the nuances and cope with the demands of the longer format.
The need to win at all costs presented the league stage of the tournament, across the country, including Saurashtra, Vidarbha and Tamil Nadu in poor light. The preparation of rank turners hurt the growth of cricketers at different levels. The pacemen were out of the equation with several sides packing their teams with spinners and part-time seamers.
Worse, one could not assess the real worth of a spinner on pitches where the ball turned appreciably, seemingly from the first delivery. How will these spinners fare on surfaces that do not provide them such assistance? Were they imparting spin sufficiently on the ball? Will they be able to defeat the batsmen with flight and dip on good wickets? Can they retain their consistency over long spells?
Their skills were not particularly tested on 'minefields’ where they simply had to hit the right areas and the pitch would do the rest.
The batsmen suffered on pitches without the consistent bounce that generally encourages strokeplay. While batting on spinning tracks can be high on the range of difficulty – several batting units were found wanting on the technical and mental fronts – even those who succeed will not catch attention, since the selectors, at the end of the day, go by the amount of runs scored.
For instance, a batsman who makes four half centuries on 'spinning landmines’ is likely to eventually be pegged lower than someone who gets four hundreds on good wickets. In the system prevalent in India – the selectors come from different zones – the amount of runs scored takes precedence.
Resurgence of Mumbai
The two biggest stories of the Ranji Trophy league phase were the rebirth of Mumbai as a formidable strike force, and the shock elimination of Karnataka, the winner of the last two editions of the championship. Indeed, Mumbai rediscovered their mojo with Shreyas Iyer assuming centre stage. While the 21-year-old Shreyas’ stroke-making ability has never been in question, his innings-building skill was under the scanner.
The right-hander, however, put a price on his wicket at No. 3, and took responsibility of guiding the innings. To his credit, he was undaunted by the pressures of the chase. Shreyas’ temperament matched his ability to disrupt bowling. He was the top scorer of the league phase with a whopping 930 runs in eight matches at 71.53. At first-class level, this has been a breakthrough season for Shreyas.
He was nicely supported by left-handed opener Akhil Herdwadkar (741 runs at 57.00). Despite missing a reliable opening partner for most part, Herdwadkar lent stability to the Mumbai line-up. The strokeful Suryakumar Yadav (531 at 44.25) and Siddesh Lad (509 at 42.4) pulled their weight, too, in Mumbai's batting.
The side piled up big runs but required their bowlers to strike. Paceman Shardul Thakur (29 wickets) and left-arm spinner Vishal Dabholkar (27) did just that as Mumbai notched up four outright wins to take their tally to 35, the most by any side in the league phase.
Karnataka not the force of the last two seasons
The reasons for Karnataka, such a strong force in the Indian domestic scene till last season, not qualifying for the last eight stage were many.
Although Shreyas Gopal served as a batsman-cum-leg-spinner, the side lacked a specialist spinner who could contain and strike. The pace-oriented Karnataka attack was one-dimensional. The move, in the first half of the season, to have Robin Uthappa keep in the first innings and specialist stumper C. Gautam in the second, did not go well with some sections of the side.
Uthappa impressed with the willow, gathering 759 runs at 58.38, but the team management’s decision to project him as a batsman-keeper at the National level – a replacement for M. S. Dhoni as and when the need arose – sent the wrong signals. There was this feeling that the think-tank was promoting certain cricketers at the cost of the team.
Indeed, it was observed that several players were focussed more on regaining their places in the Indian team than helping the side reach the knock-out phase.
Missing some India players due to India duty or injuries – Stuart Binny, K. L. Rahul, Sreenath Aravind and Abhimanyu Mithun among them – hurt Karnataka’s chances as well. Although the side has some exciting young players, the bench strength was not the same, with Karnataka losing cricketers such as Ganesh Satish, K. B. Pawan, Amit Verma and Ronit More to other States in the last few years.
When Karnataka lost outright to Maharashtra in their last league game, it meant we would have a new Ranji champion this season.
Second Part to follow...
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