Halfway through the current Ranji Trophy season, we have an intriguing scenario unfolding. The perpetual whipping boys, Tripura and J&K have a victory each in the same round. Last year’s champion, Rajasthan, are languishing at the bottom of Group A, and the runners-up, Tamil Nadu, too, are in the bottom half of Group B. Delhi and Mumbai, the two erstwhile powerhouses are struggling at No 4 and No 3 in their respective groups. Group C, which one had written off at the beginning because of being packed with perpetual non-performers, is completely open with no clear leader and wooden spooner.
Who would have expected J&K to beat Assam by a huge margin of 235 runs, and Tripura to beat Himachal by an equally impressive 169 runs? Group B is being fiercely contested, with UP leading and Orissa being the surprise No 2. Karnataka are struggling so badly in Group B that they find themselves at the bottom. Punjab are the runaway leaders in Group A with 29 points, following by Madhya Pradesh at a distant second with 11 points. Punjab’s rise has been the story of this season, so far.
Punjab have given us the most breathtaking vista into what could be a formidable side in the years to come. Even without Harbhajan Singh (and his contributions were hardly substantial even when he played for them), they have notched up four outright victories (two with bonus points) and another on first innings lead. Punjab’s Sandeep Sharma and Siddarth Kaul lead the wicket takers’ table with 29 and 27 wickets, respectively (Himachal’s Rishi Dhawan, with 28, is at No 2), and the new exciting opener Jiwanjot Singh is at No 2 with 619 runs in the run-scorers’ table, just behind 656 of Ravindra Jadeja.
Jadeja has hit two triple centuries this season alone (331 and 303*) and also taken 16 wickets including a six-for. Jiwanjot, on the other hand, became only the fourth double centurion on debut, and followed it with a 158 in the next innings. He hit up one more in his eighth innings to deflate Rajasthan, champions in the previous two editions.
Another exciting prospect on view has been one Parvez Rassol, who almost single-handedly got J&K a rare victory over Assam, third in Group C. With 67 and 120* and nine wickets including a 7/41 with his off-spinners, it has been a commanding all-round show from Rassol.
Among last year’s performers, Robin Bisht has not yet shown us the promise he displayed in the Irani Cup. Abhinav Mukund has been fitful. Manoj Tiwary is struggling while Wriddhiman Saha fights it out all alone for Bengal. Surya Kumar Yadav does not even find a place in the Mumbai squad and has been playing in the U-25 tournament. Stuart Binny has been good, but not great. Rohit Sharma has been disappointing. Ashok Menaria has hardly bothered the scorers while Sudhindra is serving a life ban.
Among the stalwarts, Amol Muzumdar is propping up Andhra’s batting so very well. He has left Wasim Jaffer behind as the leading run getter in Ranji Trophy. The flip side of this year’s edition has been that no spinner from the Groups A and B has made a mark. Only Shahbaz Nadeem of Jharkhand and Arlene Konwar of Assam are the two spinners among the top 10 with 25 and 24 scalps, respectively. As they are from the lesser Group C, their performances have, therefore, to be discounted.
The dearth of spinners is writ large in the canvas for comfort. Gone are the days when we had Erapalli Prasanna and S Venkatraghavan competing for the same spot, and Bishan Bedi, Rajinder Goel, and Padmakar Shivalkar for the other. The improvement in the pitches has, ironically, led to a decline in the skill levels of both the spinners and the batsmen playing spin.
Batting wise, there is some cause for comfort. Besides Jiwanjot’s demonstration of good skills as an opener, and Jadeja re-engineering himself as a batsman of substance, young Manprit Juneja and the experienced Parthiv Patel have also shown great staying powers under different conditions.
Among bowlers, Pankaj Singh has added many yards to his pace while improving his strike rate, but the selectors cannot get over their prejudices. Ashok Dinda has been a disappointment, but will remain in the Test squad till he fails in Test matches, and not just in Ranji. Amit Mishra has been average while Harbhajan has been below par. Parvinder Awana has been just about average. Mohd. Shami has shown promise in the two matches he has played after coming from an injury. Jalaj Saxena has done well with the bat but nothing much with the ball. Ishwar Pandey and Ankit Rajpoot have looked impressive with their pace and skills, and will definitely merit attention if they continue in the same manner through the remaining matches.
Harmeet Singh and Iqbal Abdullah cannot find a place in the Mumbai squad, and BCCI is not thinking of a loaning policy at all. As a result, two of the more promising spinners are not getting to play Ranji Trophy because they happen to be from a place which is spoilt for choice. Is this not a criminal waste in a scenario where India is struggling to locate decent spinners? All in all, it is not yet clear where the selectors are going to bring their next crop of bowlers from.
The verdict is unmistakable. While we are producing average medium-pacers through this system, the spinners are in a terminal decline. The reasons could be many, but the effect of confusion between the T20 and longer format are telling on the spinners. Batsmen seem unable to cope up with more sporting pitches, but are scoring big on flat tracks. A total of 122 centuries have already been scored. It is about time that correct weightage to these scores is given.
Also, it is about time that a clear incentive is available to the best performers. I see no reason why the highest scorer and wicket taker in the domestic circuit should not be an automatic selection to the Test squad of 15. This way, at least, we would have given a clear course to all our youngsters, who are totally confused by the vagaries of selection process. It is time the selection process is made more transparent than remain in the present surreal state.
The writer is a principal secretary in the Rajasthan Government and a former president of Rajasthan Cricket Association. Follow him on Twitter: @Sanjay_Dixit.
The views expressed are personal