Quality was definitely better

IT was a pleasant departure from the traditional format as the country's premier cricket championship adopted a new look, which, as the events proved, enhanced the overall quality of the competition.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

IT was a pleasant departure from the traditional format as the country's premier cricket championship adopted a new look, which, as the events proved, enhanced the overall quality of the competition. The Ranji Trophy had indeed come a long way from its inaugural season in 1934-35 when the format was purely knockout. This was a season of fierce combats with top teams bringing the best out of the players.

Sunil Gavaskar - authored the new format to bring back quality to domestic cricket. — Pic. V. GANESAN-

The author of the new format, Sunil Gavaskar, had long lamented the lack of competition in Ranji Trophy, mainly because of the format which produced a number of lop-sided contests. In the earlier format, the teams were divided into five zones with the winner of each zone making it to the knock-out stage. The championship saw changes over a period of time and two teams qualified for the knock-out stage. The number was increased to three to accommodate teams of influential officials. In the process the standard of the championship plummeted and resulted in scores of problems cropping up.

Each zone produced matches which were more of a formality. The strong teams feasted on the weaker oppositions even as cricket suffered on account of the one-sided nature of these matches. In the north, teams like Services, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh hardly offered any resistance to their opponents. In the south, Goa, Andhra and Kerala were rarely a threat and east too had weak sides like Bihar and Assam before Tripura joined the list. West too had weak teams in Saurashtra and Gujarat. In central zone, the competition was better only because the teams had more or less the same strength with the exception of Vidarbha.

So, when Gavaskar embarked on his mission to bring back quality to domestic cricket, he succeeded in making the Board accept his idea of having two divisions in Ranji Trophy. The Elite division comprised the top three teams from each zone. The teams were further divided into two groups. A similar pattern was followed for the Plate group and from the reports gathered, the format has come in for praise from all quarters.

It was not a smooth start to the format. A majority of the teams were not aware of the points system until the third day of the championship. The Board insisted it had informed the association but most of the teams had no clue that the format had been changed and a new points system introduced. There was confusion around as most teams had not received any communication from the Board.

In the new format, an outright win fetched two points and a draw one. The team could earn a bonus point from an innings or a ten-wicket victory. This, as most players pointed out, was the only flaw, if one could call it, in the new format.

Delhi coach Bishan Singh Bedi, even as he welcomed the format, did not appreciate the points system. "Where's the incentive for a win,'' he asked. His views were endorsed by many as the season progressed.

The format produced some excellent cricket top teams played each other in the Elite group and evenly-balanced sides provided meaning to the matches in the Plate group.

As Chandrakant Pandit, coach of the Mumbai team, described "I'm happy with the format because it gave a new dimension to the matches in the Elite group. We got to play quality teams all the way, unlike the past when one-sided matches would give a false impression to many.''

There was an element of surprise too in this format. Pandit assessed it "in the previous format we had to play teams within the zone and then qualify for the next phase. Now, within the zone, we knew most of the players and would know the tactics to adopt even before the match. But the new format didn't allow us that freedom. We played new teams and came across new players. So, our strategies changed with each session and our involvement in the game remained complete.''

Delhi skipper Vijay Dahiya too supported Pandit's views. "The element of surprise was the most welcome aspect of the new format. We could play more matches against teams outside our zone and I'm sure it helped improve the quality of the matches. We had to analyse our play at the end of each session and it was quite different than the earlier years when we would play at least two easy games in the zone itself.''

The feature of the new format was that the teams had to keep performing. "We couldn't relax at any stage because the opponents were good. It meant that one had to look for opportunities at every point and this meant that there was intense competition right through,'' said Pandit.

The pressure to look for a win helped the players adopt a positive attitude. "I knew what my captain wanted. A win was more valuable than in the previous years when you could afford to lose to Punjab or Haryana in our zone because the other teams would not offer any fight. The pressure to win because of the new points system also helped the bowlers to become more aggressive,'' said Delhi left-arm spinner Rahul Sanghvi.

Tamil Nadu left-hander S. Sharath, with a decade-long experience of first-class cricket, observed "the format was welcomed by all those who believe in quality cricket. It was a better format than the previous one for the simple reason that it was a test to differentiate between quality and average players. You could see the real standard of the cricketers in this format because top teams were playing each other.''

The championship, noted Sharath, was "very competitive.'' As Pandit added "it was competitive no doubt but I would like the authorities to take a fresh look at the points system. An outright win is difficult when the teams are evenly balanced and then a bonus point is not possible everytime. It's hard work as it is but there should be greater incentive for a win. Otherwise I must say this was the best possible format we can have.''

Pandit also advocated the introduction of a one-day league on the same basis. "It would be a good idea to have a one-day competition on the same lines. The selectors would see some good talent and can judge the players better when they excel against strong teams. We can have coloured clothing and also market the game better.''

If there was a complaint from the coaches and the players it concerned the scheduling of the matches. "Not fair to ask the players to compete in this heat,'' remarked Bedi. As far as Pandit was concerned it was "callous'' to play the key matches in such testing conditions. Sharath spoke for the players when he said "the long break between the league and the knock-out matches was not required. We had a break of 45 days between the match against Punjab and the semifinal against Delhi. I'm sure the competition could've been better had we finished the Ranji Trophy in March or first week of April at the most. The playing conditions were unkind to the players and concentration a big challenge because of the heat.'' It was too long a season no doubt but it ended on a high note with a good contest in the final. As Dilip Vengsarkar had said mid-way through the competition "this format would certainly improve the quality of cricket. There'll be lot of meaning to the runs scored and wickets taken.'' The National selectors too agreed with Vengsarkar's opinion and were too happy to watch the semifinals and the final. The departure from tradition had only enhanced the quality of India's premier cricket championship.