Ranji venues: Being neutral has helped!

Stark turners were a rarity in the just concluded Ranji season at neutral venues. And the reasons were simple; the host association had little control over the preparation of the pitch. Indeed, this was a season where plenty of games, particularly in the North and Eastern parts of the country, were dominated by the seamers.

K. MURALI KUMAR

"The Test matches are played on home and away basis. So, why should first class cricket be played at neutral venues? How will a domestic player learn to play away from home where pitch conditions are tailored in favour of the home teams?" Mumbai captain Aditya Tare asks.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Neutral venues for Ranji Trophy brought its own dynamics with it. Teams had to rework their strategies, burn midnight oil. After all, they had to reckon without home advantage. And playing in one’s own backyard is a huge factor in cricket. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with the home-away concept. After all, both teams have an equal opportunity to cash in on familiar conditions.

But then, things went wrong when stark turners or outrageously seaming tracks were produced to suit the host’s need. It created an unfair contest between bat and ball.

Playing on under-prepared tracks — here things are loaded in favour of spinners — does immense harm to cricket and cricketers in the long run even if it suits the immediate interests of the host. The batsmen are short-changed on such viciously turning mine-fields. And the pacemen are considerably marginalised. In fact, teams, in such conditions, have gone in with only one paceman, packing the eleven with spinners.

It’s a very unhealthy territory to be in. The spinners, rather predictably, pick up a lot of wickets on such tracks, but it’s hard to assess their quality.

In fact, bowling on rank turners stunts the development of spinners. It adversely impacts their growth in the areas of flight, variety and deception.

On a turning track, you bowl flat, hit the right areas and not really impart sufficient revs on the ball. So, despite a bucketful of wickets, you really don’t know how good a spinner is.

Such turners were a rarity in the just concluded Ranji season on neutral venues. And the reasons were simple; the host association had little control over the preparation of the pitch.

Indeed, this was a season where plenty of games, particularly in the North and Eastern parts of the country, were dominated by the seamers.

In fact, out of the top four wicket-takers this season, three were pacemen. Seaming tracks, invariably, have bounce as well and the technically well equipped batsmen can make runs on them.

This also meant making runs had a meaning and a context. They were not meaningless runs on flat decks. Pacemen, often the forgotten lot in Indian conditions, now had their tails up. And the spinners, away from tailor-made conditions, had an opportunity to evolve.

Actually, preparing seaming tracks for Ranji Trophy games is not a bad idea. The batsmen would, gradually, learn the virtues of back-foot play, such a crucial ingredient when taking on quality pacemen. So, when some of these batsmen graduate to the next level and travel abroad, they will be in a much better space, technically, to adapt to the conditions.

Neutral venues do help the selectors to assess talent better. And both teams have an equal chance at a venue away from home.

It can be argued that matches at neutral venues lack atmosphere. But then, this could be a flawed point of view since the stands for Ranji games, even for home games, are largely empty.

On the organisational front, however, things have to get better. Some of the centres did not even have sufficient number of balls!



Feedback from the field

Parthiv Patel (Captain, Gujarat): I spoke in favour of neutral venues at the captains and coaches conclave because there is no harm in trying something new. I don’t want to say ‘doctored’, but it was common knowledge that associations and captains were influencing (the ground staff) to prepare a pitch to suit the home team’s strength. Even we (Gujarat) have done it.

It surprised me when some captains spoke about pitches being ‘doctored’ and all that. There should not be any discussion on this subject; we have to look at ourselves and introspect and find out who is responsible for this. We cannot blame the BCCI or someone else for this.

Travelling and scheduling is important and Gujarat, I must say, was lucky this season. We played three matches in a clutch in South and North. If this can be done for all the teams, there is no harm in trying out the neutral venue concept again. Of course, I would like our friends, fans and family members to see Gujarat play at home; I am not saying this because we won the Ranji Trophy.

There will always be pros and cons to changed circumstances. Teams arrive at a new venue without knowing what kind of pitches they will get to play. You get only two days to prepare as a team and this aspect opens an opportunity to challenge yourself and the team as well. There are two ways to look at it. There is no harm in playing at neutral venues; certainly it cannot get worse.

Aditya Tare (Captain, Mumbai): At the start of the season, I had already expressed my views in the captains/coaches conclave about neutral venues. But, once the decision was made to go ahead with the neutral venue concept, I refused to speak about it until the end of the season. I think now is the right time to assess as to how it has come out and what exactly are my views about this. I feel every change should have a positive impact on the game and the players. But in this case it has been exactly the opposite.

The Test matches are played on home and away basis. So, why should first class cricket be played at neutral venues? How will a domestic player learn to play away from home where pitch conditions are tailored in favour of the home teams? And vice versa. Nowhere in the world, is first class cricket played at neutral venues.

The home crowd, loyal fans for us in Mumbai, are missing out on watching their team play. Youngsters from every State, who dream to play for the senior team in the future, will miss out on watching and getting the feel of Ranji Trophy matches.

Then long travel and staying away from home for a long period of time has affected the players physically and mentally, as a result of which the number of injuries have doubled this season. The dead flat pitch prepared by the host association is not conducive to get results; it doesn’t matter to them. Empty stands are a real poor sight for first class cricket.

Saurabh Tiwary (Captain, Jharkhand): The decision to hold Ranji Trophy matches on neutral venues has really been beneficial for us. We played on different wickets and won a few matches. It shows the depth of talent in our side. I feel this is a well thought out move by the BCCI, which would give a more competitive edge to the tournament. When it was only about home and away format, the home side always tried to make wickets to its advantage. But with neutral venues, this has been ruled out and the teams are getting much more sporting wickets, which benefits both bowlers and batsmen.

I think this move should be continued for a few more years. Though, home supporters will miss the opportunity to support their teams, it will make domestic cricket more competitive and also bring out good players in the process. I also see this as a good move to standardise wickets and playing conditions in the country.

L. Balaji (Bowling Coach, Tamil Nadu): The infrastructure has to improve, the matches should be better organised with better facilities. The logistics should be carefully worked out, too much time was lost while travelling by road. More matches should be held at proper Test centres. Neutral venues are good for pacemen, but spinners did suffer. If a couple of things are done on the organisational front, the concept can continue.

With inputs from Amitabha Das Sharma and G. Viswanath