Cheteshwar Pujara and Jaydev Unadkat finally laid their hands on the silverware. Arun Lal’s inspirational guidance took Bengal to the final for the first time in 13 years. Wasim Jaffer ended a glorious career after surpassing the 12,000-run mark in the history of the tournament. Abhinav Mukund marked his 100th Ranji game with a century against Railways. He then scored a double hundred versus Baroda to go past 10,000 first-class runs. And Parthiv Patel, the veteran with a sheepish smile, became only the fifth member in the 300-dismissal club for wicketkeepers in the Ranji Trophy.
Towards the end of an intriguing 86th edition of the Ranji Trophy, Goa reached yet another milestone... that of qualifying for the Ranji Trophy knockouts for the first time. The team had made its Ranji debut way back in 1985-86. Howsoever significant it may seem, the achievement was primarily for the record books.
After all, Goa qualified for the quarterfinals as the table-topper in the Plate Group — widely referred to as Group D — which is actually a group of novices in the Ranji Trophy. In fact, had it not been for Goa’s miserable outing in the 2018-19 edition — when it finished at the bottom of Group C and was relegated to Plate — the team would not have been, even remotely, in contention for a quarter-finals spot.
The gulf between Goa — the table-topper in Plate — and an elite team was evident during its quarter-final versus Gujarat, the table-topper from the Cross Pool of Groups A and B. Not even for one session in the five-day game did Goa look like even competing against a formidable Gujarat. Had it not been for Gujarat’s inexplicable decision to bat in its second essay instead of enforcing the follow-on despite taking a 400-plus lead in the first innings, the mismatch would have been over on Day Three instead of the eventual finish on the fourth evening.
The match was a repeat of last year’s quarter-final between eventual champion Vidarbha and Uttarakhand when despite being dragged into the last day, Uttarakhand — the Plate group topper — was never in the game as such.
Let’s not take away anything from Goa and Uttarakhand, which performed to the best of its abilities in the lowest rung. But the fact that a team from the group of novices is allowed to feature in the knockouts makes nothing but a mockery of the most prestigious tournament. And the fact that the spot awarded to the Plate topper is at the cost of one top team from the top two tiers in Ranji Trophy further takes the sheen away from the tournament.
In fact, in a league-cum-knockout tournament, if the quarter-finalists are to be spotted logically, the top eight teams should enter the knock-out stage. But logic and Indian cricket are seldom on the same page. As if two of the four quarter-finals each season for a decade preceding last year were nothing but formalities, for the last two seasons, three quarter-finals featured teams that are not really among the best and the most consistent in Ranji Trophy.
This has resulted in a majority of the quarter-finals of the Ranji Trophy being reduced to a farce. Thus, it is not fair at all for a team from the bottom-most tier of the Ranji Trophy to be catapulted into the quarter-finals.
Rohan Gavaskar, the former Bengal and India player, is stunned by the initiative of letting the Group D topper feature in the quarter-finals. “Even in the past, you have had multiple groups and the bringing of Group C teams into the quarter-finals. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the top eight teams from the country because you may have had one group relatively easier than the others. You definitely cannot have a team from Group D, which is basically the weakest group, in the quarter-finals,” says Gavaskar, who has been closely following the domestic season for the last decade as a TV commentator.
“Their reward should be just a promotion to Group C and then next year if they do well, they have a chance. The objective of creating Group D is to primarily spread the game in the north-eastern and other regions. They can’t qualify for the quarterfinals by playing in such a weak group, like Goa was completely outclassed and Goa is one of the stronger teams because they are in Ranji Trophy for about 30 years now! Look at Uttarakhand, they got promoted last year and have been relegated back to Group D this time around. They are clearly not up to the standard right now.”
Fans and connoisseurs alike would ideally want to see the top eight teams featuring in the quarter-finals. But in the Indian cricket set-up, when tournament formats go hand in hand with the BCCI vote politics, the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) went a step ahead by letting Group D teams have a crack at winning the Ranji Trophy.
Nowhere did the apex court-directed administrative reforms specify that Plate Group teams have to be in the knockouts, but the CoA legal team interpreted the rulebook as presenting even the Group D teams with an equal and fair opportunity of winning the Ranji Trophy! This has led to the quarter-finals being virtually turned into a farce since last season.
“That’s a matter of perspective. We had to bring them in because we were asked to prepare a structure and we had to organise it from the cricket operations’ side,” says Saba Karim, BCCI’s General Manager — Cricket Operations.
“Now that a new set-up has come in, they will see what sort of amendments are required and we will act accordingly. Even some years ago when there was Elite or Plate, there were some dissenting voices from the teams. That’s one reason why we have a captains’ conclave after a season. Now that the season is over, we will again have a captains’ conclave and take feedback from them. Then we will see what we can do about it.”
Ever since the BCCI moved from the zonal league-cum-knockout format to the two-tier system, there have been several changes in the format of the tournament. In fact, when Sunil Gavaskar, as the chief of BCCI’s technical committee, proposed the introduction of the Elite and Plate groups instead of the zonal leagues to avoid the monotony of facing the same opponents and an increase in the minimum number of matches to all the teams, he had recommended 10 teams (the top two from each of the five groups) in Elite and the remaining 17 in Plate.
Such was the BCCI vote politics that the Working Committee — erstwhile body responsible for BCCI’s day to day functioning — felt two was too less a number from each zone to be in the top tier and eventually expanded Elite to 15 teams, with the top three coming from each zone. The purpose of introducing the two-tier system was somewhat diluted, but still it was way better than the mundane zonal league.
After playing the semi-finals and finals for the first six seasons since switching to the two-tier format in 2002-03, the BCCI vote politics cropped up again and in a somewhat bizarre move, decided to include Group C teams in the knock-outs after introducing three groups of nine teams each.
It effectively meant that the teams that featured in the knock-outs were No. 1 to 6, 19 and 20. Since 2018-19, it has become even weirder, with the teams that make it to the quarter-finals being effectively ranked No. 1 to 5, 19, 20 and 29. The supporters of the weird system point out that Rajasthan won the Ranji Trophy in 2010-11 despite qualifying for the knock-outs, but exceptions don’t always prove the rule.
In the 26 quarter-finals since 2008-09 featuring teams from Groups C and D, only four times have those from the lower rungs overcome those from the top two tiers. While Rajasthan went on to be crowned champion in 2010-11, Services lost in the semis in 2012-13, while Maharashtra (2013-14) and Saurashtra (2015-16) made it to the final.
But the fact that almost 85 per cent of the quarter-finals have gone in favour of the favourites does raise serious question marks over the prevalent system. No wonder Manoj Tiwary, the Bengal veteran, urges the decision-makers to have a relook at the knockouts format.
“I think the groups need to be looked at once again. Out of the top 18, only five go through. And just imagine, a team like Goa — with all due respect — or those who are coming from Groups C and D, some of them get relegated, then play against weaker opponents and are now straight into the quarter-finals, it’s unfair on the teams from the top two groups,” Tiwary says.
So what is the way out? This writer spoke with almost a dozen current and former experienced cricketers and a majority of them felt if teams from Groups C and D had to feature in the knock-outs, the most viable way is for the BCCI to reintroduce the pre-quarterfinals like in the 1980s and 1990s. But that would mean adding another week to an already cramped Ranji schedule.
Karim, himself a regular in the pre-quartefinals era, isn’t sure whether that is feasible. “There are a number of constraints under which we work. The biggest is the window. If you have to conduct so many tournaments within a limited window, a particular tournament cannot stretch for too long because so many other tournaments and matches need to be played,” he says. “There are various parameters through which we have to look at domestic cricket. However, in the end, domestic cricket is meant to improve Indian cricket.”
While all the experts agreed with Gavaskar Jr. that the teams from Group D should not even be considered for quarter-finals at least for five years more, some of them felt “A4 vs C1” and “B4 vs C2” makes sense as two PQFs, with the top three teams from each of the top two pools qualifying directly for the quarter-finals.
Rohan, however, feels the older pre-2018-19 formula of sticking to the quarter-finals makes sense considering the constraints with the scheduling dilemma. “I think the old format of 3 & 3 (from A and B) and 2 from Group C was a sane format. I feel that’s the ideal way to go about it. Even in the past, we have seen teams coming from Group C being competitive in the knockouts,” he says.
With a Test captain at the helm of affairs of BCCI, one expects him to pay heed to the concerns of the domestic cricket fraternity. It would be interesting to see if Sourav Ganguly can spare some time from his Board games and ensure that the quarter-final farce is rectified next season onward.
Ranji format from 2002-03
The evolution of Ranji Trophy ever since doing away with the zonal league-cum-knockout format:
In 2002-03, the BCCI switched to a two-tier league system in order to avoid the monotony of the same opponents being repeated in the zonal league and with an eye to increase the number of matches offered to teams in a season:
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