Ranji Trophy: crying for reform

THE PROPOSED new format of the Ranji Trophy championship is one of the most keenly awaited reforms in Indian cricket. That someone of the eminence of Sunil Gavaskar favours it gives weightage to the two-tier structure advocated by many and embraced by the BCCI committee. Whether the present two-division system in vogue in English county cricket has had anything to do with the recent resurrection of that country's cricket from the depths of despair is arguable, but there is no denying the increased competitiveness that will result from bunching the stronger teams together.

What can suffer will be the odds in favour of an exceptionally talented player from one of the `B' Division teams getting an opportunity to prove his calibre against a strong opposition, like a Kerala or Goa player might under the existing system, because he now has a chance to face the best from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Hyderabad.

Finalising the composition of the two divisions can be a tricky proposition. Which teams will figure in the `A' Division and which in the `B' category? Can the Board go by last year's performances and pack all the knockout qualifiers into the top bracket and those that failed into the bottom rung? That may produce some strange results and anomalies that will not reflect the true strengths of the teams in each division. A better method may be to analyse performances in the past many seasons and divide the teams on the basis of the findings.Commentator Harsha Bhogle has recommended a three-division format and doing away with the Duleep and Deodhar Trophies as well as the Irani Cup, because these tournaments are played by loose conglomerations rather than well-knit teams. They tend to foster a selfish desire to catch the attention of selectors rather than team spirit, he states. That, sadly, is a true description of the situation. While Bhogle's revolutionary suggestion merits serious consideration if we wish to make domestic cricket truly competitive, it will make it even more difficult for an exceptional player in one of the weaker sides to prove his mettle against the top teams in India. And what do selectors do with team and individual successes in the lower divisions until the teams earn promotion to a higher division?

One of the first reactions of a couple of former Test players to the new proposals was to express the fear that they would facilitate match fixing to manipulate promotions and relegations in favour of teams colluding to deny points to other teams. A close watch will have to be kept on such unsavoury attempts and strong measures initiated to stamp out fraud.

It is true that quantity at the expense of quality has been the bane of Indian cricket, yet I am going to suggest a small increase in the number of teams in the national championship for what I believe has been an unfair distribution of the opportunity to participate in the Ranji Trophy. I refer to the fact that Maharashtra has three teams in the tournament in Mumbai, Maharashtra and Vidarbha, Gujarat three as well in Gujarat, Baroda and Saurashtra, and Andhra Pradesh two in Hyderabad and Andhra, while two strong states Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have only one team each. I believe there is a strong case for allowing these two states to field two teams each in the new format. A second Tamil Nadu team is likely to be stronger than a number of teams currently competing in the Ranji Trophy and no prizes for guessing the names of these teams. Just to illustrate how some good players in these two states can get left out of the competition while much less talented players get to play at least five or six matches in a season, Kumaran of Tamil Nadu or Ganesh of Karnataka could be dropped when these teams are at full strength - at least hypothetically speaking, and sometimes in actual fact.

Domestic cricket is crying out for reform, but the BCCI should arrive at the new format after very careful consideration of all the possible repercussions of the changes it approves. The tendency to imitate overseas models blindly should be resisted and an indigenous model born of the Indian experience designed. Remember the rampant misuse of the points system borrowed from English county cricket in the eighties when the number of wickets taken and runs scored were rewarded with points?