Clayton Murzello: BCCI needs to be more fan-tastic
If a fan base is central to IPL and its franchises, it's also important to woo spectators to watch the longer version of domestic cricket
Much to the relief of most participants and fans, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) reverted to the home and away system for Ranji Trophy league games this season. Sure, domestic cricket still resounded with the loud echoes of bat hitting ball within empty stadiums, but those few spectators enjoyed a sense of belonging and attachment to one of the two teams. I am sure the players felt happy to play in front of spectators who were happy to back them.
Karnataka captain Vinay Kumar appeals against a Vidarbha batsman amidst empty stands in the Ranji Trophy semi-final at Eden Gardens in Kolkata on Sunday. Pic/PTI
Then came the announcement of the Ranji quarter-finals - all to be held at neutral venues. So Mumbai took on Karnataka at Nagpur; Gujarat and Bengal clashed in Jaipur; Vijayawada hosted the Delhi v Madhya Pradesh game while Kerala and Vidarbha fought it out at Surat. The semi-finals (Delhi v Bengal and Karnataka v Vidarbha) were hosted by Pune and Kolkata respectively.
This sort of venue allocation is full of knots and crosses. Last year's knock out venues were selected by the BCCI on the basis of pitch performance in the Ranji Trophy league stage. This year, Vijayawada hosted the quarter-final contested by Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, but strangely it did not host a league game at all, which indicates that this year's knock out venues were not decided by pitch performance alone. And the Cricket Club of India which was tipped to host the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy final before it went to Indore, has not hosted a first-class domestic game all season.
The so-called reasoning for games being held at neutral venues was that one team does not get an unfair advantage. If that's an argument lapped up by some, it should be remembered that neutral curators have been introduced this year. Then why hire neutral curators if the knock outs will be played on neutral venues anyway? By the way, the neutral curator system also tells the world how the establishment distrusts its affiliated units' curators. Firstly, they have to be shown some trust and if they do a fair job, reward them. For example, you could introduce an award for the state units who prepare the maximum number of fair pitches in domestic cricket.
Had matches been held at home venues, sure there would have been voices raised about host venues making things easier for the home team, but aren't the majority of Indian Premier League matches played on a home and away basis? If creating a fan base is central to the IPL and its franchises, it is also important for domestic cricket fans to watch their teams in the longer version of the game. For example, if two Mumbai players have been a hit with Mumbai Indians, won't their performances tempt a cricket follower to watch them in the Ranji Trophy? It's as if the BCCI doesn't want players to enjoy any sort of home comfort and familiarity. It's an approach entrenched with naivety and they've got to come up with other ways to ensure no team gets an unfair advantage – not such muddled venue allocations.
While watching the first session of the recent quarter-final between Mumbai and Karnataka at Nagpur on television could only produce cynicism. Here were two domestic giants - both multiple Ranji Trophy winners - flexing every competitive muscle in a knock out game with barely a handful watching at the ground. I bet there were more media persons (television crew included) than spectators. We shouldn't have been surprised with the turn-out because the match was held at a place that was 18 km away from Nagpur. Imagine how pumped up Test triple centurion Karun Nair would be had he been batting at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore or the privilege for a Prithvi Shaw to be opening the innings at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai during a knockout game. Neutral venues are just perfunctory solutions to negate home advantage. It may help to try a radical idea instead, like awarding the toss to the visiting team.
Too much is being made of neutral venues and very little is being done - at ground level literally - to increase crowd turnouts for domestic cricket. This was the second season for the pink ball experiment, introduced in Duleep Trophy and meant to familiarise Indian cricketers with playing first-class cricket under lights. Has this latest innovation caused the Duleep Trophy to regain significance among the public, to rescue it from general anonymity? From all accounts, it has been a big flop and one is yet to read any official announcement of a pink ball Test in India. With due credit to Sourav Ganguly's view that the introduction of day-night Test cricket is inevitable in India, it's probably fair to ask whether the significance of Duleep Trophy was sacrificed for pink ball cricket?
Clearly, domestic cricket in India requires more local bums on seats. And unless the BCCI doesn't stop from merely shifting in and out of neutral gear, nothing will move ahead.
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org