The Ranji Trophy loyalists always have one wish at the start of every season: Let there be surprising and inspiring stories from different corners of the country rather than the narrative being restricted to the familiar teams and players. It seems the prayers have been answered well in 2018-19.
Not considered good enough for Delhi, Milind Kumar joined Sikkim as a professional. He finished with 1,331 runs at an average of 121, the second-highest season aggregate behind VVS Laxman’s 1,415 for Hyderabad in 1999-2000.
Ashutosh Aman, the left-arm spinner, had played List A cricket for Services in the past but at 32 his dreams of playing in the Ranji Trophy were fading quickly.
The introduction of nine new teams as a part of the implementation of the Lodha committee’s recommendations allowed him to turn up for Bihar. He had 68 victims at an astounding average of 6.48, surpassing Bishan Singh Bedi (64 scalps in 1974-75) to set a new record for most wickets in a season.
The quality of the opposition against which the duo played has encouraged debates, but as Ashutosh said in an interaction with ESPNcricinfo, “There’s definitely a difference (between elite and plate group teams). But what to do? The decision to group teams this way wasn’t my choice.”
Milind and Ashutosh are the stories of the season as much as only one of the eight quarter-finalists — Vidarbha, Saurashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand — being a traditional powerhouse. Karnataka have won eight titles, while the combined count of the rest seven is five.
This is a result of various state associations investing well the huge revenue they earn from BCCI, and also serves as a lesson for those who have failed to show intent so far. The senior teams of Vidarbha, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh have not only proven their mettle, but their respective Under-19 teams have also qualified for the Cooch Behar Trophy knockouts, showcasing the kind of work happening behind the scenes to improve the depth.
It has fostered a winning attitude that the ‘smaller’ teams were earlier not known for. Kerala, for example, who have never scored 300 in the fourth innings, successfully chased down 297 against Himachal Pradesh on the final day of the league stages to jump from the ninth position to finish fourth in the combined Group A and B table. That they won the crucial encounter in the absence of an injured Jalaj Saxena, their main all-round weapon, makes Kerala’s second consecutive quarter-final appearance even more compelling. Dav Whatmore as coach has changed the way the players think in particular situations.
Saurashtra had a change of leadership in the middle of the season after Jaydev Shah retired, but that hardly came in their way of finishing second. Aided by Wasim Jaffer’s supreme form, Chandrakant Pandit’s old-school coaching and the association’s commitment to expand cricket beyond Nagpur, Vidarbha have proved that last season’s double of Ranji and Irani Cup was not a fluke.
Rajasthan are without Pankaj Singh — who moved to Pondicherry — and the ugly politics and court battles have marred the growth of the sport in the state over the last few years. Yet they did little wrong to top Group C with 51 points. It is hard to recall any other team in recent memory finishing with so many points. Gujarat were comfortably placed throughout the league stage despite Parthiv Patel being available for just one match due to national assignments,.
All teams are work in progress, but this is a good marker of near completion of the democratisation of Indian cricket. Mumbai, the 42-time champions, have been pushed to a corner, searching for answers in all departments after they failed to qualify for the knockouts for the first time since 2007-08.
It has been an incredible season, and like always, there was so much at stake for most teams in the last round of league matches. The only grouse, though, is that as the race for qualifications heated up, home teams resorted to underprepared surfaces. It made the results a lottery. A total of 19 out of 34 matches in the last two rounds, which is almost 56 percent, finished within three days. It remains to be seen if the trend is bucked in the knockouts, which will once again be played on a home-and-away basis after four seasons.
Another talking point was the basis on which the top eight teams qualified for the second round. The combined qualification of five teams from Group A and B added new dimension to the competition. The teams did not have to just worry about what was happening in their group, but also keep an eye on the other. But how fair was it considering four teams made it from Group A and only one progressed from Group B? That teams in Group C and plate group did not have to worry about this element made the playing field slightly uneven.
The other burning issue was the absence of a high-quality spinner in the three elite groups. Shahbaz Nadeem did not play all matches for Jharkhand, who were unlucky to not progress because of a weather-affected game against Tripura where they had to settle for a draw nine runs short of a chase of 153. Outside of Nadeem, there was no other young spinner who made a lasting impression. There was, however, no dearth of young batting talents coming through, with Punjab’s Shubman Gill leading the pack with 728 runs in nine innings.
The focus now shifts to the knockouts. Cheteshwar Pujara is back in the mix after the success in Australia, giving Saurashtra the edge over Uttar Pradesh in Lucknow. Vidarbha would know that they have to stick to the basics against Rajat Bhatia’s Uttarakhand for their merry run to continue. They also have the home advantage. Karnataka start favourites against Rajasthan at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in a televised game. On paper, Kerala’s encounter against Gujarat, who will regain the services of Parthiv, at the scenic Wayanad ground looks to be most balanced one.
Ranji Trophy loyalists will continue to wish the season offers more inspiring and surprising stories.