Lifeless domestic structure

Raghuram Bhat (Guiding a trainee at the MAC Spin Academy) favours `nets' more than fitness drills.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY Raghuram Bhat (Guiding a trainee at the MAC Spin Academy) favours `nets' more than fitness drills.

No doubt the facilities for the players have improved a lot, but the most important area — the 22-yard playing strip — continues to frustrate them, writes Vijay Lokapally.

"It doesn't look like first-class cricket." That was an honest comment by Mohinder Amarnath who made a rare appearance at the Ferozeshah Kotla during a Ranji Trophy match last season. If he were to make another visit this year, he will be shocked to see that the standard of domestic cricket in India has plummeted further.

Season after season, steps are taken to improve the quality of cricket and bring in more intensity to the domestic cricket structure. But the standards have continued to drop, and it has hit such a low that the stalwarts from the past wonder if domestic cricket would ever become competitive.

Mohinder Amarnath was right when he observed that there was hardly any reason for a cricket lover to spend time at the grounds in India. The facilities offered to the spectators are archaic, while the quality of cricket on display is abysmal. A lot of meaningless cricket is played, mostly on the fourth day of a Ranji Trophy match when the umpires and the players simply go through the formalities. This is a poor advertisement for the game.

Talking of the falling standards of India's domestic cricket, former Test left-arm spinner Raghuram Bhat, who took 374 wickets in 82 first-class matches apart from four wickets in the two Tests he played, said: "Earlier we used to play within the zone but it is different now. There are too many matches and obviously too many opportunities. When you play so much, it is also obvious that you concentrate on your fitness. And in the process, you ignore the aspect of honing your skills. To me this is the factor that has affected our overall cricket."

Ajay Jadeja calls for proper scheduling of matches to bolster domestic cricket in India.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

The art of taking wickets is also on the decline, and Bhat supports the argument that incentives should be given to the bowlers who toil on unresponsive pitches. "I may sound old-fashioned but the fact remains that today players spend more time on fitness drills than in the nets. We have to focus on honing skills for the simple reason that the pitches in India produce mediocre cricket."

So, what is Bhat's suggestion? "At least two to three hours of bowling in the nets. We used to do that, and what a learning experience it was to bowl to the likes of (G. R.) Viswanath and Brijesh (Patel) for hours. We would all improve by testing each other. It is in the nets that you learn to improve your strong points."

There is no doubt that the facilities for the players have improved a lot — a modern gym at most of the grounds, better dressing rooms, high quality equipment even for the juniors and monetary benefits at all levels. However, the most important area — the 22-yard playing strip — continues to frustrate the players.

Ajay Jadeja, who has played in 15 Tests, 196 one-day internationals and 107 first-class matches, agreed that there was a steady decline in the standard of domestic cricket. "Much of it is due to poor scheduling of matches. Most of the big stars are not available for their state teams. I would concentrate more on proper scheduling of matches apart from preparing proper pitches. And we have to somehow get rid of the meaningless cricket that we often get to see on the fourth day of a Ranji match. We have to introduce the system of home and away matches too," he said.

Another veteran on the circuit, Sunil Joshi, was critical of the manner in which cricket is played on docile tracks. "Much of our problems lie in our preparation of pitches. How can you groom talent if the young bowlers do not get any help from the pitch? The associations should ensure that even the practice pitches are of good quality," said Joshi, who has taken 490 wickets in 127 first-class matches. He also played in 15 Tests and 69 one-day internationals.

Another area of concern to the players is umpiring, even though it is not as bad as it was two decades ago. Here is an anecdote: In a match against Services, Punjab skipper Gursharan Singh, playing back, was declared leg-before. The batsman made no secret of his dissent at the umpire's decision. Back in the dressing room, it was Gursharan who was lambasted by coach Bishan Singh Bedi, who demanded that he apologise to the umpire.

"I was not out," insisted Gursharan.

"You played back and the ball hit your pads," screamed Bedi.

"The ball did not hit my pads paaji. It struck the wicketkeeper's pads," replied Gursharan, almost in tears.

It had Bedi and the rest of the team in splits though.

Jokes apart, umpiring has always been a contentious issue.

Former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner Sunil Subramaniam, who has taken 285 wickets in 74 first-class matches, has a radical suggestion to improve domestic cricket. "Why do we play so many first-class matches? Why not have an elite competition that will involve the best teams, such as the top teams from Elite Group `A' and Group `B' of the Ranji Trophy, a team made up of players from the other sides in the Elite Group `A' and `B', a team comprising players from sides other than the winners of Rohinton Baria Trophy and the all India under-19 winning team in the Plate Group of the Ranji Trophy, the India under-19 team, the Indian Universities team and one visiting first-class team from any of the ICC's full members. The matches should be of five days duration with a maximum of 450 overs. They should be played at venues which have surfaces with true bounce. The Indian team can be selected from this competition."

Sunil Joshi advocates preparing quality pitches.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Bhat had another point to make. "There is too much of this video analysis, too much of theory. You have to be practical and there is nothing better than understanding the importance of line and length. We also seem to be getting carried away by the emergence of young fast bowlers. I am not trying to suggest that we stop grooming fast bowlers but our strength is spin and will remain so. We need to give responsibility to our former great spinners like Prasanna, Bedi, V. V. Kumar and Venkataraghavan. They will teach the young slow bowlers the art of taking wickets. We have started a spin wing in this direction at the Karnataka State Cricket Association."

One final word of advice from Bhat: "You have to teach your players how to read the pitch. It is a very crucial aspect of the game. If you ask me, a greater part of the battle is won if you can study and read the pitch. I am still learning by constantly interacting with the ground staff, so why can't the youngsters?"

The learning process never stops. But as Bhat, Joshi, Subramaniam and Jadeja, all with vast experience and understanding of India's domestic cricket structure, noted, the game would remain static unless the administrators introduce incentives for winning. And that can only come from preparing pitches with true bounce.

The need to infuse life into domestic cricket is very important. As Subramaniam aptly put it, "the rationalising of the state of the playing surfaces would produce quality players who can meet the demands of international cricket."