Indian domestic cricket: A season of uncertainties

While the board officials and the state associations have adopted a ‘wait and watch’ policy, former cricketers feel that the BCCI must look at a shorter season with some tweaks in the structure.

“My only concern is that if the BCCI is forced to cancel the Ranji Trophy this season, then what happens?” asks Irfan Pathan.   -  V. V. Subramanyam

 

A few weeks ago, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) chief, Sourav Ganguly, made it clear that cricketing action will resume in the country only when the environment is safe.

That has invariably raised questions on whether there will be a complete domestic season, this time around.

While the board officials and the state associations have adopted a ‘wait and watch’ policy, former cricketers feel that the BCCI must look at a shorter season with some tweaks in the structure.

Sportstar spoke to five former cricketers across zones on their take for the domestic season and what could be the road ahead…

Irfan Pathan (West Zone)

There is still no clarity on the domestic season this year and it will depend on how things pan out over the next few months. India’s domestic structure is one of the best in the world and over the last few years, the number of matches have gone up — which is a fantastic thing.

But as of now, we need to wait and watch. There are a few options — you could leave out the Ranji Trophy and play only white-ball cricket, so that you can finish the season in time. The other option could be going back to the zonal format, but that needs proper arrangement in a bid to avoid imbalance. With news teams coming in, the east zone has more teams compared to others, so that needs to be looked into, if zonal format is to be adopted.

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My only concern is that if the BCCI is forced to cancel the Ranji Trophy this season, then what happens? Let’s not forget that Ranji Trophy goes on for four days and there are multiple logistical issues to look into. Whereas if you are playing white-ball cricket, you can have all the matches in one city. That reduces travelling and also makes life easy in terms of logistics.

And in these times, flying from one venue to another is also not the best option. For example, for a team like Baroda, it becomes difficult to travel to the East since there are no direct flights. So, if the team is to play in Kolkata, it has to reach there via Mumbai or Ahmedabad. At this point, that doesn’t appear to be a viable option.

“We may have to do away with the Deodhar Trophy, Irani Cup or a Duleep Trophy, but Ranji Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy are must — you can’t ignore them,” says Deep Dasgupta.   -  Special Arrangement

Instead, it is better to divide teams into groups and then have all the matches in one city, which has multiple grounds. For the players and umpires too, it is the safest option.

In case things go out of control and the Board decides to scrap the Ranji Trophy to focus only on white-ball cricket — which is unlikely though — they will have to ensure that the players are compensated for the financial loss. This is the time of need and I am sure BCCI will take care of the players in every possible way. Players will lose money in case Ranji Trophy doesn’t happen. For the national players, who have central contracts or the ones who feature in the IPL, it’s a different story but players who only rely on domestic cricket, life is difficult. So, the board must look for their compensation. I personally do not back the zonal system, but in an extraordinary situation like this, that might have to be considered as an option. First-class cricket is the backbone of the sport and we need to make sure that it doesn’t suffer.

Deep Dasgupta (East Zone)

For this season, we need to keep a couple of things in mind. We have to reduce travel as much as possible and the number of venues must be restricted. It is important to continue with first-class cricket because you cannot waste a year. At some point in time, you need to have first-class cricket, maybe a curtailed version. We might have to reduce the number of tournaments, say for example, the Duleep Trophy could be axed. But you still need to have Ranji Trophy.

If you don’t want to go back to the zonal format, you can look at playing a certain number of matches in one venue. You need to form groups and then play the matches in one city each. A city like Bengaluru has at least three-four grounds, so you can have eight teams there and over a month, you can play the games. I hope things ease out by the time Ranji Trophy starts and since the tournament is around October-November, there is no reason to panic right now.

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We may have to do away with the Deodhar Trophy, Irani Cup or a Duleep Trophy, but then Ranji Trophy and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy are must — you can’t ignore them. For Ranji Trophy, we need to identify cities which have multiple grounds.

Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad could be explored to host group matches and that way, we can also ensure that we are in a bio-bubble environment. One also needs to make sure that the cities have enough hotels which can accommodate so many teams, so that the health guidelines are maintained.

To avoid risks, the teams can remain in one city for a month and a half, take a break and then finish the leg. Zonal format is not the way forward because it mixes up things, so it is better to identify groups, maintaining the balance of teams.

Less travel, limited venues and maintaining safety protocols will be the key, going forward.

Gagan Khoda (Central Zone)

Going back to zonal system is not an option. The selectors want to see quality players pitted against each other and that’s the way you see a player emerging. If you are going to have a shorter version of Ranji Trophy, then you should make it into groups and there should be no elite and plate events. Just make four groups with the right mix — it should not be the case that only big teams are playing against big teams. So, there has to be a proper distribution of the groups based on the recent performance of the teams. You take all the elite teams and distribute them equally in all the groups, so that the new teams can also get a chance to play against the big sides. That way you would have a competitive environment and it would be easy to play the knockouts — quarterfinals, semifinals and final.

Mithun Manhas suggests that the BCCI should adopt a top-down approach.   -  Special Arrangement

At a time like this, it is important to have a short season and to avoid the clutter, it is a must that we do away with a separate plate group. But at the same time, we need to make sure that the smaller teams too get a fair deal in the allocated four groups — there has to be a right balance. By having the four groups, it will be a fair game and the teams would be evenly distributed and there won’t be any complaints.

As far as travelling is concerned, it should be arranged by the respective state units. I don’t think travelling and lodging will be an issue because teams will mostly travel by air and they will have the best facilities. But it is important to have a short and fair structure for the tournament. In trying times like these, that’s the only way forward.

Mithun Manhas (North Zone)

It is going to be very difficult to go ahead with the domestic season in any way, shape or form. It’s not just about the Ranji Trophy; you’ve got age-group tournaments and kids at under-16 and under-14 level are likely to struggle with the restrictions in place. So according to me, organising the junior tournaments will be impossible. And as far Ranji Trophy and U-23 are concerned, it will require extensive planning regardless of whether they revert to the old zonal format.

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The BCCI should adopt a top-down approach. We should start with a bilateral international series because it’s easier to take care of, say, 30 people, than handling the 37 teams involved in first-class cricket. If that goes well, then you can plan for an Indian Premier League (IPL) which is an eight-team set-up and then take it on from there. To start the domestic season first certainly sounds like a herculean task. See, firstly not all state associations have the same expansive set-up as the BCCI and not to mention the six North-East states that have been part of the domestic set-up since the 2018-19 season; infrastructure and managing the running of teams there is a challenge anyway.

“I’m sure the BCCI and all state associations have been busy planning in the last few weeks, and it will be as safe as possible, when cricket finally resumes,” says Hemang Badani (left).   -  B. Jothi Ramalingam

And let’s say, hypothetically, we do go back to the zonal format and Delhi starts playing teams from the North Zone; getting players from different parts of Delhi in one place will be a challenge considering it is one of the worst-hit cities in India. And what if midway through the tournament, three-four players from the Delhi team test positive? The whole team goes into quarantine and then what happens? No team will play Delhi; where does that leave us then in terms of the competition? So, there are a plenty of unknowns for now and the advice of the doctors will be imperative before we even start thinking of having any kind of domestic cricket.

Hemang Badani (South Zone)

No one knows how the domestic season in India will pan out. While measures are being taken to protect the players from contracting COVID-19, the situation remains fluid. I’m sure the BCCI and all state associations have been busy planning in the last few weeks, and it will be as safe as possible, when cricket finally resumes but there are simply too many variables at play here.

One of the concerns, and rightfully so, has been inter-state travelling... reverting to the old zonal format doesn’t solve the problem.

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You’re still going to meet players from Andhra, Kerala and Karnataka. The players will still have to travel even if it’s restricted to their zones.

What about staying at hotels, exposing yourself to so many people... the hygiene at the venues and not to mention your own team-mates.

In a Tamil Nadu squad for instance, one guy could be from Salem, one from Coimbatore, three from Chennai. So you are talking about serious exposure levels.