Scoffing at the underdog tag!

Vidarbha became the third team of the decade to win the Ranji Trophy for the first time. In fact, Vidarbha’s title also meant that in the last eight editions, there have been six Ranji Trophy champions.

Vidarbha’s Rajneesh Gurbani rose to the occasion in the knockouts; he took four five-wicket hauls in three matches, including a 10-wicket match haul against Karnataka.   -  PTI

The New Year may not have started on an ideal note in all walks of life in India, but when it comes to the religion that binds Indians - cricket - the first day of 2018 gave a big day to cheer. After all, Ranji Trophy witnessed a new champion - underdog Vidarbha ran over Delhi on the penultimate day of the final in Indore.

That the victory was completed on the New Year’s Day could well have been symbolic since Vidarbha’s triumph also signified the dawn of a new era in Indian domestic cricket. For only the fifth time in the Ranji Trophy’s 83-year history and for the first time since 1943-44 have we seen two teams claiming their maiden Ranji title in successive seasons.

If Gujarat’s race to victory in the 2016-17 season was a surprise, Vidarbha’s glorious run this time around would have been unexpected for many a connoisseur, let alone fans. But the fact that Vidarbha had pummelled strong teams like Punjab and Bengal in the league stage before defeating the biggies Karnataka in a nail-biting semifinal and Delhi in the final does underline the depth and belief in Vidarbha’s unit.

No surprise

That Vidarbha had qualified for the knockouts for the third time in the last four seasons wasn’t a surprise. But the manner in which it carved its name on the premier domestic tournament’s trophy was heartening. Chandrakant Pandit — the head coach who has carved a niche for making no-hopers win the Ranji Trophy — admitted that he had to give the team the belief that they could take the next step. That the mix of seasoned professionals and hungry youngsters responded to Pandit’s uncanny methods is a tribute to the players.

Vidarbha thus became the third team of the decade to win the Ranji Trophy for the first time. In fact, Vidarbha’s title also meant that in the last eight editions, there have been six Ranji Trophy champions. Such a phenomenon signifies a stark shift in the story of Indian domestic cricket, traditionally dominated by strongholds like Mumbai, Delhi and Karnataka. The last time there were so many varied Ranji champions was in the period between the mid-1980s and the early-1990s when between two of Mumbai’s titles, six teams won the title in eight seasons.

So what is it that has caused such an upheaval in the balance of domestic first-class cricket? Is it that the aura of the big teams is a thing of the past? Or is it that the smaller teams have started giving more thrust on improving their performances rather than only sit idle with the moolah that filters through the BCCI coffers year after year? One would say it’s a combination of both.

Till the last decade, if a minnow team was pitted against a team like Delhi or Mumbai, the battle was lost even before it began as the mere presence of stalwarts would snuff the fire out of the smaller units. But thanks to the exposure that players from all teams get nowadays — be it the Indian Premier League or a plethora of Under-19 and A tours — players from traditionally mediocre teams are no longer bogged down by their opponents.

Major boost

It reflected in Jammu & Kashmir registering an outright win against Mumbai at the Wankhede Stadium three years ago in what was the first-ever match between the two teams. Even if players from these smaller teams are not selected for any of the big-ticket events, the fact that they rub shoulders with their counterparts from the bigger teams in multiple pre-season camps at the National Cricket Academy also gives them a major boost in backing themselves in big matches. The smaller teams are also making smart use of professional players and coaches from the strongholds. The moment Mumbai inexplicably let go of Pandit as the coach despite the team having won a title and having made it to the final in his two-year stint, Vidarbha latched on to him. And the hard taskmaster persisted with the services of Ganesh Satish and Wasim Jaffer; he also brought in leggie Karn Sharma to improve the balance of the squad.

Mayank Agarwal scored 1160 runs in the Ranji Trophy season. Photo: Prashant Nakwe

 

Besides helping the team close out big matches, a majority of these professionals have helped the younger lot in the team elevate their performance to the next level. If state associations like Vidarbha persist with the systems suggested by these professional coaches, they can certainly shed the tag of underdogs in no time, and more importantly, see the emergence of more India players from smaller pockets.

Vidarbha may have hogged the limelight at the end of the season but the Ranji Trophy season wasn’t only about its triumph. There were more talking points right through the season. Here’s a look at them:

Neutral curators

While reverting from the much-criticised neutral venues to the conventional home-and-away format for the league stage, in a bid to avoid tampering with the pitches, the BCCI technical committee headed by former India captain Sourav Ganguly had ordered neutral curators for all the 91 Ranji games.

At the end of the season, the ploy appeared to have worked. Fifty-three of the 91 games produced results but more importantly, the season didn’t see a single two-day finish. Don’t be surprised if the BCCI continues with the same policy next season.

Agarwal packs a punch

When Robin Uthappa moved from Karnataka to Saurashtra at the start of the season, it offered Mayank Agarwal a perfect opportunity to shed the tag of a T20 specialist and establish himself as a first-class batsman. Two games into the tournament, owing to a tally of just 31, including a pair, the aggressive opener was on the verge of losing his place yet again. Post-Diwali, however, Agarwal started bursting firecrackers with a triple-hundred against Maharashtra followed by a spree of hundreds to rake up 1000 runs in a month.

So consistent was the opener that his stupendous run had assured of Karnataka of a place in the quarters well before the end of the league stage. It had also given him a place at the top of the run-getters’ table. If only the batsman had managed to end the season on a high — he could register just one fifty in three innings in the knock-outs — it would have been a perfect ending not just for himself but perhaps for his team as well.

Gurbani raises the bar

It is often said that the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is evident in crunch moments. Rajneesh Gurbani, the Vidarbha new-ball bowler, certainly made heads roll, thanks to his superlative run in the knockouts. In the three knock-outs, he registered four five-wicket hauls, including a 10-wicket match-haul in the semifinal against Karnataka. And his fifer in the final included a hat-trick, only the second instance of a three-in-a-row in a Ranji final. That he finished as the season’s second-highest wicket-taker despite playing just six games was a hint of his potential. It would be interesting to see how Gurbani, the Man of the Match in the semifinal and the final, shapes up in the years to come.

The format and the scheduling

The BCCI technical committee adopted the format of dividing the 28 teams into four groups of seven teams each for the season, thus doing away with the notional promotion and relegation. The move resulted in reducing the assured number of matches per team from at least eight to six, thus fuelling a demand from the smaller teams for more games. However, the move resulted in at least a four-day break between each league round, thus helping the players, especially pace bowlers, to recoup and go full-steam for a majority of the league stage.

While the BCCI should be applauded for giving teams a break during the Diwali week, perhaps it should also look at not scheduling games at the dawn of the New Year. Not only does it deprive all those who are involved in the game quality time with their near and dear ones, it also fails to create enough buzz among the fans.