It's already been two days since Vidarbha became the sixth team in 85 seasons to defend the Ranji Trophy, and the emptiness has taken over. With no respite from cricket from around the globe through the year, there is hardly any scope to feel the vacuum, but for those who are emotionally invested in India's domestic cricket, it is a difficult little period of transition.
The three months of Ranji Trophy is like a marriage season where there is fun and frolic over 160 matches. The excitement of seeing unknown names become new stars, the non-traditional teams turning themselves into powerhouses and changing perceptions, the giants being toppled, the fight for first-innings lead, the push for outright wins, the controversies that hog the headlines and watching new set of followers getting addicted to this busy calendar - it all comes in the package.
A fan's relationship with the Ranji Trophy evolves with every passing season, but once the winning captain lifts the trophy and the broadcaster cuts to highlights of some old international matches, the feeling is always the same. It suddenly dawns on you that the time has come for the shamiana to be dismantled.
The 2018-19 season was always going to be different with 37 teams in the fray because of the implementation of the Lodha Committee recommendation. There were debates over the preparedness of the nine new teams to compete at this level, but there had to be a start at some point. Uttarakhand qualified for the knockouts from the Plate group, and gave a good account of themselves in the quarterfinal against the eventual champions by scoring 355 in the first innings and taking the game into the fifth day. Sikkim's Milind Kumar topped the batting charts with 1331 runs, and Ashutosh Aman, Bihar's left-arm spinner, took 68 wickets, which is now the most by a bowler in a season.
Sure, the quality of competition was not always the best in the Plate group but things will only get better with more structures being put in place.
A total of 104 matches produced outright results - a rise of 7 percent from last season, which is encouraging even though some of the pitches were below average. The issue of pitches and umpires have plagued the circuit for a while now. Chandrakant Pandit, Vidarbha's coach, called the track in Wayanad where they beat Kerala in the semifinal in two days "dangerous". Similarly, Saurashtra's successful chase of 279 against Karnataka in the other last-four clash in Bangalore was marred by poor umpiring decisions. Cheteshwar Pujara was out caught behind in both the innings, but the umpire failed to notice the deflection. Jaydev Unadkat, Saurashtra's captain, and Yere Goud, Karnataka's coach, felt that the introduction of the Decision Review System at least for the knockout games could uplift the standard of the competition.
Like the usage of DRS, there could be scope to make the league matches five-day affairs. All the knockout games were gripping because of that extra day in hand. Securing the first-innings lead was not the dominant theme among the teams, and it brought out an aggressive style of play which was refreshing to watch. The calendar can be freed by removing Duleep Trophy and Deodhar Trophy, and making Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy crispier to make all Ranji league games five-day affairs. It will prepare the youngsters better for higher challenges and also add more context to the season.
The biggest takeaway from the season was the way Vidarbha absorbed the pressure of being the defending champions and still played a brand of cricket that allowed them to come back after a poor start to retain the title. Faiz Fazal, Vidarbha's captain, said that following "strict discipline routine" for two years helped them to sustain the momentum.
"Initially, one department was clicking, the other was not clicking. But even there, the first match that we saved against Maharashtra (after being dismissed for 120 in the first innings and being asked to follow-on) was a really good match," Fazal said. "That one point was also very important. All of those one extra points wherever we got, sometimes via a bonus point, were crucial to qualify for the knockouts by topping the table. That was also important, topping the table."
Vidarbha's secret was teamwork and unconditionally surrendering themselves to Pandit's unique methods. He now has five Ranji titles as a coach and has established himself as the man of wisdom. Wasim Jaffer's penchant for runs at 40 years of age was remarkable as he became the first batsman to score 1000 runs in a Ranji season twice. More importantly, his presence allowed the youngsters to understand the opponent better and deliver appropriately when the need arose.
Even if the top-order apart from Fazal and Jaffer did not do much through the season, there were always handy contributions from the middle and lower-middle order which made up for the gap. Of course, this was Aditya Sarwate's season. The first Vidarbha bowler to take 50 or more wickets in a season, the left-arm spinner's control over his craft and ability to deliver the ball at the same spot consistently was a defining element in the final as he dismissed Pujara for 1 and 0 in a space of three days. Fazal called him an "India material". They were of course benefitted by Umesh Yadav's presence for the knockouts.
Like Fazal, Unadkat also gave a good account of himself as captain after taking over the responsibilities in the middle of the season after Jaydev Shah retired. His bowling has gone up by a few notches, which allowed Saurashtra to play four bowlers. Also, Dharmendrasinh Jadeja's accurate left-arm spin kept them unbeaten till the final.
Uttar Pradesh's Rinku Singh and Punjab's Shubhman Gill, who has now played for India, were among the other youngsters to catch the attention. Abhimanyu Easwaran was equally impressive for Bengal, finishing with 861 runs at 95.66 in six matches.
While the spinners dominated the bowling narrative, Rajasthan's Tanveer-ul-Haq made a strong impression with his left-arm seam. The way he setup Karun Nair and Manish Pandey to eventually dismiss them in Karnataka's first innings in the quarterfinal was gripping to watch. Ronit More, who is set to lead Karnataka's pace bowling unit in the years to come, and the Kerala duo of Sandeep Warrier and Basil Thampi too bowled with a lot of heart. Among the allrounders, Shreyas Gopal and Mahipal Lomror made an impression.
Obviously, Mumbai, who started the season by winning the Vijay Hazare Trophy, not making it to the knockouts for the first time since 2007-08 got attention, but very few complained because it was another indication of democratisation of Indian cricket.