Ranji Trophy: Neutral is the buzzword for knockouts?

Vidarbha-Kerala semifinal finishing inside two days has led to questions about the nature of Krishnagiri Stadium pitch and the Ranji Trophy format for the knockout rounds.

Umesh Yadav picked 12 wickets in Vidarbha's crushing win over Kerala on what has been deemed a 'dangerous' pitch at Krishnagiri Stadium in Wayanad.

Kerala’s defeat against Vidarbha in the Ranji Trophy semifinals inside two days has not only raised questions about the nature of the pitch at the Krishnagiri Stadium in Wayanad, but has also left the cricketing circle divided on whether the home-and-away format should be continued for the knock-outs.

“Ideally it should be played in a neutral venue. That way, there will be no home advantage. In knock-outs, no teams should get any favour,” Vidarbha captain, Faiz Fazal, told Sportstar.

Last year, Vidarbha went on to win the Ranji Trophy playing the knock-out fixtures in neutral venues. This year, it played its quarterfinal at home against Uttarakhand and may play the final in Nagpur if Saurashtra makes it to the summit clash.

Moving away from the home-and-away format in 2016, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had opted for neutral venues for the entire tournament, but last season, even though the home-and-away format was brought back, the knock-outs were played in neutral venues.

But this time, in a bid to attract the local crowd, the Board went back to the home-and-away format for the knock-outs, but with neutral curators.

In the quarterfinal between Kerala and Gujarat too, questions were raised about the Wayanad track, with Gujarat captain suggesting that the pitch was ‘dangerous’. “To start up and down from the first session, it’s a bit dangerous. I wouldn’t say it was the proper wicket. The scores are suggesting so. I don’t mind playing on a seaming wicket or a turning wicket. Up and down wicket from ball one is something we don’t want,” Parthiv said.

That’s the reason even Gujarat coach, Hitesh Majmudar, feels that it is better to go back to the ‘neutral venues’ for the knock-outs. “Even though we played poorly, the wicket in Wayanad was not a five-day wicket,” the coach said.

Earlier, BCCI’s chief curator, Daljit Singh, had said that the curators only had ‘three days to prepare the surface.’ And Majmudar believes that playing in neutral venues will improve the quality of games in the knock-out stage.

Tamil Nadu coach, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, too is of the opinion that to be ‘very fair’ it is better to go for neutral venues for the knock-out matches.

“Do you want to preserve how it has been happening or do you want to be very fair--is something they (the BCCI) needs to address. They should decide on one format and stick to it, rather than changing it every year,” Kanitkar said.

But the former cricketer, who led Rajasthan to its consecutive title wins in 2010-11 and 2011-12 remembers how it had played the knock-outs in home and away format. “In the first year (in 2010-11), we had quarterfinals and semifinals in Jaipur. We played finals away in Baroda. In the second year, we played all the knockouts away from home,” Kanitkar said.

“It’s been home and away for ages, so if they feel it is good then they should stick to it. Or else, go for neutral venues,” he said.

But he feels it is extremely important to have a good cricket wicket. “Ideally, the fast bowlers would get help initially, then it will turn. That’s how it used to be at Wankhede or at the Chepauk. Going overboard with turners or green pitches doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Former India international and the present mentor of Bengal, Arun Lal, is against ‘neutral venues’. “Neutral venues take away the romance from the game completely. India doesn’t play Australia in England, right? Similarly, if you are going for neutral venues, it takes away the crowd from the matches,” Lal said. “It is a terrible thing. It should not have been attempted,” he added.

He is also critical of the point system in the league stage. An outright victory gives the teams six points and if it manages a bonus, the tally goes up to seven. “This needs to be looked at. The point system is forcing teams to try and push for six points or else you don’t qualify. We had eight matches, if we had won all eight, we would have still not qualified. Which, to me, is unbelievable. You are forcing people to keep a lot of grass, under-prepared, unattended and trying to finish the game. There can’t be anything as a bonus point. Have five points or have five day matches. It is a matter of just another eight days,” Lal said.

But is it also a good advertisement for the game when a match gets over in just a day and a half?

“There are neutral curators, so what’s the problem? What if it ends in a day and a half? They didn’t play well, it’s as simple. Maybe, there was a bit more of juice in the wicket than expected but that happens in cricket. Just for that, changing the entire format? I am dead against it,” Lal said.

Earlier, BCCI GM, Cricket Operations, Syed Saba Karim, had told this publication that the Board will ‘take a stock of the situation’ once the season is over.

“It is our endeavour to make domestic cricket extremely challenging so that it throws up exciting talents who will do justice to the nation later,” Karim had said.

Before the knock-outs, Karim had requested the state associations to play their home matches at the ‘headquarters’ “to save both the teams from travelling as all the teams have already played minimum of eight four-day matches and travel from one city to the other after landing will tire them.”

But with both Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi busy with India-A and women’s matches, Wayanad was chosen as the venue.

But after Friday’s controversy, it needs to be seen what happens to the picturesque venue in Kerala.