© BCCI

Pant’s 972 runs were sizeable by themselves, but what made them special was they came off 906 deliveries. © BCCI

The first round of the 2017-18 edition of the Ranji Trophy has been completed successfully, and it’s already thrown up a lot of interesting stories. Prashant Chopra’s massive triple-hundred was the headline grabber, but each match almost threw up an intriguing scenario, while some of the pluses and minuses of the new structure came into focus.

The equaliser

One of the great things about not having any ostensibly ‘weaker’ group is that runs and wickets count for a lot more. The two batsmen who garnered the most print space – not eyeballs unfortunately because it wasn’t telecast – in 2016-17 were Priyank Panchal and Rishabh Pant.

Panchal’s sheer volume of runs meant he dominated headlines. After all, only two people in the entire history of the Ranji Trophy had scored more than his 1,310 runs, VVS Laxman (1,415) and Shreyas Iyer (1,321). Pant, was the talent that got the adrenaline flowing even when tracking the Ranji Trophy only through scorecards for the vast majority of people. His 972 runs were sizeable by themselves, but what made them special was they came off 906 deliveries. Pant was smashing the leather off the red cherry, and you couldn’t but sit up and take notice.

© BCCI

Prashant Chopra’s massive triple-hundred was the headline grabber, but each match almost threw up an intriguing scenario. © BCCI

Pant though wasn’t the second highest run-scorer of the season. Not even the third. Those two spots went to Haryana’s Nitin Saini, who made 989 runs, and Chopra, who hit 978 runs for Himachal Pradesh. Both men did it in Group C though, which is why their feats didn’t attract the same attention. Chopra, for example, got his runs at a strike-rate of 85.34, which was not that far below Pant’s 107.28.

This year, I suspect, if the same men end up with similar figures, the disparity in instant recall won’t be quite as large. Subconsciously or otherwise, runs – or wickets – in Group C or the erstwhile Plate group, were never accorded the same status as those in the higher groups. Understandably enough too, with one set of teams weaker than the others. But no longer now. If any two batsmen score similar amounts of runs, they will be weighed equally because now Groups A, B, C and D are just nomenclature. There is no ‘weaker’ group. And that’s fairer to players, as well as to coaches and selectors who need to assess them.

More breathing space, but no catching up

One of the prime complaints players had every year about the Ranji Trophy was the schedule. During the neutral venues experiment, it became particularly stark. Jharkhand, for example, had to travel from Kerala to Tripura, a journey that involved taking a bus, then a flight, then a connecting flight, and then some more time on the road. If you have to fit that into the three days available between two hard-fought four-day matches, it’s going to exhaust you mentally and physically in ways you can’t fathom. The fact that despite that schedule Jharkhand topped their Group and went to the semifinals is a testament to the resilience and skill Saurabh Tiwary’s team showed, but even in the semifinal – recalling the tougher bits of their schedule made some players wince.

It was evident that more gaps were needed between matches. But while that has been achieved, it’s at the cost of actually playing matches. Suddenly, from eight or nine league matches, everyone is playing only six. The plight of the injured player is the worst in this. Miss two matches and a third of your season is potentially gone. With rain always a factor, it can affect knockout chances materially too. Two of the matches in the first round were badly rain-affected – Maharashtra v Hyderabad and Odisha v Tripura. All four of those teams have to be satisfied with one point each, while the players involved have had significant match time lopped off.

An elite domestic cricketer in India stands to earn a grand sum of Rs 10 lakh in a year. And that’s before taxes. © Saurabh Tiwary

Jharkhand, for example, had to travel from Kerala to Tripura, a journey that involved taking a bus, then a flight, then a connecting flight, and then some more time on the road. © Saurabh Tiwary

If you want to keep gaps between matches, which is sensible, while still having only three groups so that each side gets more game-time, which is fair – the only sensible thing to do is have a longer season. One of the ways this can be achieved is by lopping off the Duleep Trophy, whose relevance has decreased dramatically. It was shoved in with the subtlety and appeal of a sledgehammer this year. Maybe it’s time to formally lay it to rest and start the Ranji season earlier.

The points

One of the most long-held grouses with the Ranji Trophy has been the points system based on first-innings leads. For example, take the Chopra triple-century match. Himachal racked up 729 for 8 declared. Punjab responded with 601 all out. Then, Himachal were reduced to 145 for 6 in the third innings. But Punjab will get no reward for that fightback. Even while acknowledging that Chopra’s triple-century would have taken something special, when you get 700 playing 600 in the first innings, it’s pretty evident that it’s the flattest of pitches. And if one team has been able to make something of it at the end, perhaps they deserve a reward? Maybe a system of awarding points for brackets of runs scored and wickets taken in each innings, so that the match doesn’t become perfunctory once the first-innings lead has been taken? This is a measure that has been advocated often in the past, but it’s never seen the light of day.

Naturally, each of these things – and many more – will come into clearer focus as the season goes on. And anyway they can be implemented only from next year onwards. But it won’t hurt to start tracking this and planning for possible changes.