I first watched Test cricket in a stadium in 1984/85, at the Eden Gardens, a historic match for at least three reasons. First, this was the only Test match Kapil Dev missed in his career. Then, Mohammad Azharuddin scored a hundred on debut: he would go on to become the first – and till date, only – batter to score hundreds in each of his first Test matches. And finally, Ravi Shastri batted at least once on all five days.
But none of that is what the Test match is remembered for. Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar chose to not declare the Indian innings – the first innings of the Test match – until after lunch on Day 4. The crowd, already incensed by the axing of Kapil, booed Gavaskar until he declared. A livid Gavaskar vowed to never play at the venue again. He did not, for India.
In 1986/87, after four dreary draws, the desperate organisers prepared a vicious turning track for the fifth Test match, in Bangalore. The decade Indian fans often look back with rose-tinted nostalgia was actually one of the dullest in terms of Test cricket.
This was perhaps an extreme example, but Test cricket was a feature in the 1980s in India. The rose-tinted nostalgia of Indian fans, at least in this case, has little to do with data. Of the 42 Tests India played at home in the 1980s, 24 (57%) were draws. For perspective, since 2010, there have been 10 draws in 58 matches (17%) on Indian soil.
India have won 43 out of these 58 Test matches. In their entire history, up to 2009, they had won only another 69. This has been their greatest phase. Under Virat Kohli and now Rohit Sharma, the focus has shifted from batting on bowling, and rightly so – because the most successful teams in the history of Test cricket have all been outstanding bowling sides.
The batting has probably suffered, with India often opting for five specialist batters instead of their traditional plan of six. The big scores have slowly dried out, but India have taken 20 wickets more often than they ever have.
Curiously, that is not reflected in the rules of the Ranji Trophy. A draw with a first-innings lead fetches three points and a win six (twice, not thrice, unlike football), so teams are happy to get two first-innings leads instead of pushing for one outright win.
That is not in tune with how the Indian Test team plays these days. As mentioned, the focus at the highest level – rightly – is on bowling. Unfortunately, while the approach of the Indian Test side has undergone changes, the Ranji Trophy laws still benefit teams that play the drab version of cricket from the 1980s.
Things get worse in the knockouts. Here, if the team batting first does not bowl out the team batting second, the quotient (runs/wicket) is calculated to determine the winner. Thus, a side may pile 500 (a quotient of 50), but the other team may score 51/0, or even 51/1, and win.
That brings us to the ongoing Ranji Trophy pre-quarterfinal, where Jharkhand batted on until they were bowled out for 880 well into Day 3. Nagaland are 130/4 at stumps. Jharkhand are still likely to win outright, but one cannot help but wonder whether such long innings should be encouraged.
Ranji Trophy, after all, is the largest First-class cricket tournament in India. Potential Test cricketers are identified and selected based on Ranji Trophy performances. The format and the laws of the tournament should ideally be designed to reflect the approach – if not the standards – of the Test team, which is currently not the case.
Putting a bar of 150 overs on the first innings of a match is one of the ways forward. A bar can also be imposed on the second innings of the match, if needed. That is likely to discourage teams batting first from continuing with the sole aim of occupying the crease for as long as possible.
The rules, as they currently stand, do little more than promote defensive batting for hours with little attempt for an outright win, particularly on prepared flat wickets.