Neutral venue conundrum hovers over Ranji knock-outs

As the premier domestic tournament marks its return on the domestic calendar towards the fag end of the season, one cannot help but wonder if the policy of neutral venues is the way to go.

Abhishek Nayar of Mumbai practises at the SDNRW Stadium in Mysuru ahead of the Ranji Trophy quarterfinal against Jharkhand.   -  M. A. Sriram

Visakhapatnam, Mysuru, Valsad and Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium). Barring the last venue, the remaining three cities are renowned for their tourist attractions than cricket. But over the next week, all three cities will be the focal point as they will host the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals.

None of the home teams of the stadia that would stage the round of eight have made it to the knockouts (Mumbai’s homeground is Wankhede Stadium while the Brabourne’s home team, Cricket Club of India participates only in local cricket). In fact, all the seven knock-out ties this month will be played on neutral venues, referred to as ‘BCCI-decided venues’ in the Indian cricket administrators’ parlance.

As the premier domestic tournament marks its return on the domestic calendar towards the fag end of the season, one cannot help but wonder if the policy of neutral venues is the way to go.

No doubt there are numerous advantages of staging crucial domestic games at neutral venues. “Obviously the wickets have to be fairer to both the teams at neutral venues,” Arun Sharma, the Punjab coach, told Sportstar after his team’s arrival here on Monday for the quarterfinal against Assam.

“We usually see home teams manipulating wickets to suit themselves in the last couple of rounds of the league stage, so that would be negated. Besides, in the north zone, you just cannot play for half the day at this time of the year due to heavy fog, so it has its advantages.”

But from another perspective, the policy of negating home advantage is kind of self-defeating, especially since the BCCI lends the Test team snatch optimum home advantage.

“I agree that in terms of pitches and conditions, you don’t want to completely go against the visiting teams. But anyway you have the BCCI-appointed pitch curators who oversee the preparation of the wickets, so it is their job to ensure the conditions are not completely alien to the visiting team. I am in favour for home-and-away format even for the knock-outs,” said Deep Dasgupta, former India wicketkeeper.

When the BCCI had introduced the neutral venue policy for the knock-outs in 2007-08, in the very next season it had come in for severe criticism by Sachin Tendulkar, who played the semifinal against Saurashtra in Chennai and the final against Uttar Pradesh in Hyderabad in front of near-empty stands.

Though the BCCI reverted to the traditional method for the next couple of years, for the last three years, the BCCI-decided venues have been the norm for Ranji knock-outs.

When it comes to major centres, it results in some of the best action in domestic cricket with sparse crowds in the stands. Dasgupta, now a television expert, feels efforts should be made to attract spectators to the ground.

“We should try and get more people to watch games. If you have the home advantage, there will be more people anyway, so that way it makes more sense to have big games at the home venue of one of the teams,” he said. “Maybe we should be looking at promoting domestic cricket. Get schoolkids to come in and watch the games, or letting kids come in and play during the lunch break. Such initiatives will involve more locals in domestic cricket.”

This year, though, there are likely to be more spectators for the knock-outs anyway. With all the major cricket venues getting ready for next month’s World Twenty20, the BCCI is forced to stage Ranji knockouts at smaller centres. It could result in more spectators in the stands, considering their unfulfilled desire of watching live cricket.

Is that reason good enough to deprive teams of home advantage?