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Making a better Ranji Trophy schedule the need of the hour

Workload management has emerged as a ubiquitous term in Indian cricket, perhaps even surpassing the use of phrases like “following processes” or “sticking to the basics.” Once an Indian cricketer enters the national team or becomes a regular fixture in the Indian Premier League (IPL), these two words swiftly become part of their lexicon. Even the custodian of the game in India, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), has adopted this terminology in its sporadic official statements regarding player availability.

The support staff of the national cricket team emphasizes the importance of managing the workload of players due to the hectic cricket schedule. However, this same approach seems to be disregarded when it comes to domestic cricket. Although most cricketers start their journey by playing in the Ranji Trophy, they tend to overlook the mismanagement of workload in the premier First-Class championship.

Naturally, Shardul Thakur, a member of India’s ODI World Cup squad who played a key role in the knockouts to help Mumbai regain the trophy, voicing concerns about the stretched Ranji schedule was a welcomed relief for the domestic cricket community. He didn’t hold back in expressing his dissatisfaction with the tightly packed 10 consecutive rounds of Ranji matches, with only three days’ respite in between. “I think next year they will have to have a look at it and give more breaks. The schedule is becoming tighter and tighter. If the boys keep playing like this for two more seasons, there will be a lot of injuries across the country,” Thakur remarked during a media interaction after scoring his maiden First-Class hundred in Mumbai’s Ranji semifinal against Tamil Nadu. The following day, when Thakur reiterated his sentiments during the post-match presentation of the Ranji semifinal, all his Mumbai teammates applauded in agreement. Some of the disappointed Tamil Nadu players, despite the visible dismay of a crushing innings defeat, also joined in the applause.

Over the past decade, the IPL has taken centre stage in the global cricket calendar, often at the expense of domestic cricket. Issues like starting the season during the monsoon and holding important matches in foggy regions have plagued domestic cricket. Additionally, the focus on the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy (SMAT) before the IPL player auction has further marginalized the Ranji Trophy. The most recent edition of the Ranji Trophy, the 89th, was crammed into a tight 70-day window, with teams constantly travelling between matches. This hectic schedule left finalists Mumbai and Vidarbha fatigued. Players like Mohit Avasthi from Mumbai and the Vidarbha pace trio were visibly worn out, with little time to recover between matches. Contrastingly, the tournament was more spread out in the 2013–14 season—a maximum of 47 match days—allowing teams adequate rest before crucial games. Overall, the Ranji Trophy has undergone significant changes, transitioning from a 99-day tournament with breaks to a tightly packed schedule of consecutive matches.

READ | Mumbai’s invincible ethos culminates in 42nd Ranji Trophy title

Siddharth Kaul, the veteran Punjab speedster, echoed his sentiments about the issue during the Sportstar Conclave in Chandigarh in February. But when a current Indian star speaks out, it has an immediate impact. That is what happened after Thakur’s statement. It set in motion a chain of events. First, India head coach Rahul Dravid reacted to Thakur’s statement after the Test series against England culminated in Dharamsala. While Dravid admitted the “need to look at and see how we can manage our domestic schedules,” he stressed the need to rework the schedule and hear from domestic players and coaches more.

The week after, the BCCI found itself in a damage-control mode and formed an internal panel consisting of Dravid, National Cricket Academy head VVS Laxman, chief selector Ajit Agarkar, and general manager Abey Kuruvilla. All four members of the panel have been through the grind of domestic cricket since the 1990s, and they will put their heads together to try and resolve the conundrum. However, Kuruvilla, who is now responsible for the conduct of domestic cricket, will have his hands tied unless given the freedom to do away with a couple of redundant tournaments, for starters. The appointment of the panel is a welcome step, although it has yet to be announced officially.

“I think next year they (BCCI) will have to have a look at it (Ranji Trophy schedule) and give more breaks. The schedule is becoming tighter and tighter. If the boys keep playing like this for two more seasons, there will be a lot of injuries across the country”Mumbai all-rounder Shardul Thakur

The BCCI must bring back the annual captains and coaches conclave during the off-season. The last time the domestic captains and coaches assembled and shared their suggestions with the BCCI was in 2016 when the Committee of Administrators appointed by the Supreme Court was in charge. Despite the elected office-bearers taking over, the captains and coaches conclave, a regular feature for more than a decade, has not been revived yet. In fact, Dravid hinted at resuming the practice. “Maybe we need to re-look and see whether some of the tournaments we are conducting are necessary in this day and age or if they are not necessary. There needs to be an all-round review [involving] coaches and players, especially the guys who are part of the domestic circuit,” he said in Dharamsala.

At a time when the BCCI has set the ball in motion and issued a directive to top cricketers to start playing Ranji Trophy regularly, getting the schedule right for the premiere domestic cricket championships is its responsibility. When teams have to play 10 rounds until the final, the tournament has to have at least a three-month window.

The problem is that if the BCCI starts the Ranji Trophy on October 1 and finishes it without any break, it will be unable to schedule the SMAT before the IPL auction. Perhaps the most sensible option is to start the Inter-State tournaments with the Ranji Trophy league stage and end the domestic season with the Ranji knockouts. It would mean the Ranji League stage—even with a four-day break between games, a basic necessity for travel and recovery—can be completed in October and November. It can be followed by the SMAT T20 Trophy in November–December and the Vijay Hazare Trophy in January.

Will the domestic cricketers’ plea be heard in time ahead of the next season? Watch this space.

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