Indian domestic cricket has always been a run fest. Bowlers have toiled on dead, dull pitches, the sun beating mercilessly down on them, while batsmen have flayed them merrily to the cow corner. In the Ranji Trophy, the premier national cricket championship, there have been many triple centuries—to be precise, 43 triple tons so far in the 84 editions of the tournament which began in 1934. Come to think of it, this number may seem too small for such an old tournament. Also, there have been decades when no triple centuries were scored at all.
All that has changed now. In the last two seasons there has been a dramatic spurt in three-figure knocks. In 2016-17 alone, five triple centuries were scored, and in the first six rounds of the current Ranji Trophy league so far, there have been three. That means eight out of 43 triple, almost a fifth, have been registered just in the last two seasons. There are 19 matches, including 12 in the last round that began on November 25, still to be played—going by the rush, there could be a new record by the end of the season.
Of course, raking up tall scores depends on several factors—the form of batsmen, quality of opponents’ bowling attack, pitches and climatic conditions. In the last three seasons, the number of triple centuries has vastly varied and has coincided with constantly changing rules regarding the Ranji Trophy format and policy for curators and pitches.
In 2015-16, when matches were played on home-and-away basis, the controversy of the season was doctored pitches, as several four-day matches got over either within two or three days. After complaints, the BCCI’s technical committee, headed by Sourav Ganguly, ordered all Ranji matches to be played at neutral venues in 2016-17.
But that experiment also failed, on account of long travel time between matches that left players fatigued. So, the format was reverted to the home-and-away matches for 2017-18, but a new experiment, of neutral curators, was introduced. It means instead of local curators, those from the same zone are now preparing the pitches this season. It is another attempt to nip the malaise of pitch doctoring in the bud.
“Generally, when a team plays at its home ground, the captain and coach advise curators about the type of pitch they want. But when teams play matches at neutral venues, curators would usually make the pitch as they deem fit for the outstation teams. Plus, there’s not much public interest in a match at a neutral venue without the home being involved. One reason for the five triple centuries in 2016-17 could be that there were no home-venue curators that season,” former India Test opener Wasim Jaffer, who has so far scored two triple centuries, tells Outlook.
Irrespective of the pitch debate, the figures involving triple centuries nonetheless make interesting reading. In 2015-16, when the home-and-away rule was on—meaning a team plays against an opponent once at its home ground and the next time at the opponent’s—not a single triple ton was scored, though 169 hundreds were registered, including 13 double hundreds. Then, in 2016-17, when all matches were played at neutral venues, five triple hundreds were hammered. “The reason is last season no one could doctor pitches. Naturally, the game improved with improvement in pitches. And this season, neutral curators are being used. So, if a neutral curator knows that the home team is not involved, why will he do anything with the pitch? Maybe, pitches are tilting towards batsmen, but not on the poorer side,” says a senior curator. In all, 187 centuries were scored in 2016-17, and this included 19 scores of 200-plus.
In the ongoing season, three batsmen—Himachal Pradesh’s Prashant Chopra (338, vs Punjab), Andhra’s Hanuma Vihari (302 not out, vs Odisha) and Karnataka’s Mayank Agarwal (304 not out, vs Maharashtra)—have already crossed the milestone. Chopra and Vihari were in the 2012 Under-19 World Cup-winning squad. In all, 134 centuries have been carved out, comprising three triple and seven double tons. Going by the pitches’ behaviour, there could be more, as 19 matches are left still. Of these, seven knock-out matches, quarter-finals onwards, will be played at neutral venues.
“If this experiment with neutral curators succeeds, it will be a big step by the BCCI towards improving domestic cricket. On the BCCI’s instructions, only qualified curators are being used and they are making pitches within their zones as neutral curators, as they know the conditions well,” says Daljit Singh, chairman of the pitches and ground committee. In 2016-17, a total of 28 curators—10 who formed the pitch committee and 18 additional ones—prepared the pitches at 51 neutral venues where matches were played. On the darker side of the season gone by, match referees reported nine pitches/venues as ‘very poor’ and marked them zero. But the BCCI, expectedly, let the guilty associations go scot-free. This season, for 91 Ranji Trophy matches 22 neutral curators are preparing the pitches. They are all qualified and reach venues a few days ahead of a game to prepare the pitches with the assistance of local curators.
Apart from the pitch issue, the pattern of scoring triple centuries has been very uneven in Ranji Trophy. It took five years, after its launch in 1934-35, for the first one to be scored, by the legendary Vijay Hazare, then representing Maharashtra against Baroda, in Poona in January 1940.
There followed a dry patch of 17 years, when not a single three-figure knock was played, between 1949-50 and 1965-66. This was the longest gap between two Ranji triple tons. Left-handed Ajit Wadekar, a former India and Mumbai captain, broke the hoodoo with a superb 484-minute 323 for Mumbai in the innings-and-five-run win over Mysore in the semi-finals at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium in February 1967. “Basically, if you want a result you have to go for the strokes. And in the process, when you are well set, you keep going and keep getting runs. You have to be in top form and, to use a cricketing term, you should be seeing the ball like a football. Those were the reasons why I got those big scores,” Wadekar, 76, tells Outlook.
After that knock, there was a 14-year drought. The great opening batsman Sunil Gavaskar finally shattered that jinx as he piled up a 545-minute 340 in Mumbai’s innings-and-81-run win against Bengal in the quarter-finals at Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai in 1981. “It’s quite funny; it’s difficult to explain the gaps between triple centuries. Maybe the hunger for runs had gone down during those periods because that [hunger] is very essential. When one gets going it’s essential that one must keep piling on the runs,” says Wadekar, who captained Mumbai to four Ranji Trophy triumphs.
There was another smaller gap, of five years, from 2001-02 to 2005-06, but since then triple centuries have been a regular feature, with the exception of a few seasons in between. The 2012-13 season was also a fecund one, where five triples were scored, with two of them coming from Saurashtra’s Ravinder Jadeja. After a year’s gap, three were carved out in 2014-15. One of the three batsmen was Karun Nair, who went on to score a triple on Test debut against England in Chennai in 2016. Then, after a barren 2015-16, came the current avalanche of three-figure knocks.
Karnataka opener Mayank Agarwal is the latest to join the club. He batted for more than 12 hours for his 304 not out (28x4s, 4x6s). “I realised somewhere around 270 that I would get a 300, but I kept that thought away because I was very interested in doing what I was doing. Being in the present was working for me, and having a positive intent—and not letting thoughts of milestones take over my mind,” he says of his 494-ball knock that helped Karnataka win by an innings and 136 runs and later qualify for the quarter-finals.
The vagaries of cricket are such that the 26-year-old batsman had got a dreaded pair (of noughts) in the previous match, against Hyderabad, and was shattered. “It was one of the lowest points in my life, in terms of cricket; I had never got a pair before. And I had never got a 300 either. The triple century was a contrast in just one week; everything changed,” recalls the Bangalore boy. However, Agarwal doesn’t want to comment on whether the neutral venues/curators have helped batsmen in the last two seasons. Jaffer, who holds the Ranji record of most runs (10,454) and most centuries (36), makes the crucial point of batting habits having changed in this age of fast-paced ODIs and frenetic T20s. “Generally, I don’t think pitches have undergone a lot of changes. I feel batsmanship has gone to a different level since the advent of T20 and cricket has become aggressive. As a result, people are playing many more shots, compared to the olden times. They are playing more shots in the air; the fear of hitting sixes has gone. In T20, you don’t fear getting out,” he says.
Interestingly, most triple centuries have either been scored by openers or the No. 3 batsman, as they usually get to play more overs. But the swashbuckling Virender Sehwag, who hit two 300-plus scores in Tests, and the masterful Sachin Tendulkar never scored a triple in Ranji Trophy. So, a triple ton in Ranji may sit pretty on a young batsman’s resume, but there is more mettle to be shown to get into the national team.