Qualifying for the Ranji Trophy final didn’t eventually come down to the toss of a coin, but it was very much a possibility as the match between Mumbai and Services went into its sixth day. Had that scenario unfolded, one of the finalists for India’s premier domestic competition would have been decided on the basis of luck.
It is impossible to imagine any other league in any other sport in any other country deciding something other than playing on the field should determine who gets the opportunity to play for a national championship.
It is hard to imagine that the BCCI wants it this way as well. The coin solution must have been seen as a last-ditch resort; an option to be resorted to only in the most unlikely of situations. After all, how often do teams fail to complete their first innings over six days?
Had it happened though, it would have been a deep embarrassment for the tournament and for the players on both teams. It is not merely reaching the final that matters; it is also how you get there. And Services surprising run to the semi-finals certainly did not deserve to end that way.
Part of the problem was the slow pace at which Mumbai batted. This year the team has seemingly adopted the strategy of settling for a first-innings lead. That is enough to go through to the next round, so why take unnecessary risks by pushing for a win when the system rewards you anyway. In this case, Mumbai spent 143 overs over two days making 380, though the team admittedly needed to show caution from 23/3 and then 104/4 with Sachin Tendulkar back in the dressing room. Still, in an era where Test teams routinely make close to 300 runs in a day, this was almost farcical.
And that is the trouble with a knock-out system when games are played over five days. In most other Test cricket playing countries, the domestic four or five-day national championship is decided through a league format, where the team with the best results over the course of the season duly emerges as the champion. Such a system also does away with the necessity of forcing a result by unnatural means, be it the toss of a coin or a first-innings lead.
A league-based tournament would also negate the impact of international players returning just for a few games, like Sachin Tendulkar did for Mumbai this season. A player like Tendulkar can have a huge impact in a one-off game, but if he plays say three out of his team's 10 games in a season, then the effect of his presence will not tilt the balance so severely.
Imagine what might have happened if Australia could have won the 2001 Kolkata Test by simply taking a first-innings lead. Chasing a series win, the prudent choice would have been to bat again and that would have meant no 281 for VVS Laxman and no fourth-innings heroics from Harbhajan Singh.
So India needs to move away from the knock-out system in Ranji Trophy and create a system along on the lines of English county cricket. Not only would that give teams more of an incentive to win during the season – winning gives you more points – but it would not reward teams for playing defensive cricket. And it would completely do away with the possibility of two teams deciding their fate on the toss of a coin.