The 2018-19 season started off as a proud proclamation of a never-before-seen calendar of Indian domestic cricket but turned into a horror show by the time it ended. Sketches by Arka Banerjee. © Cricbuzz
The sun wasn’t shining very brightly in New Delhi on December 22. It certainly wasn’t hot enough for sure to dry a pitch that had been watered only the previous evening. And when match referee Daniel Manohar walked over to the middle of the Feroz Shah Kotla on the morning of the Delhi-Madhya Pradesh game, he didn’t think the 22-yard strip was fit enough for play to start on time. To his horror, he didn’t know who to turn to either. For, the man-in-charge of the pitch, Sunil Chauhan, wasn’t present at the venue.
Chauhan, as it turned out, was waiting at the airport to board his flight to Dharamsala. A slew of allegations and conspiracy theories were thrown around, both in support of and against the North Zone curator. As per the protocol, he should have been at the match venue. But in the curator’s defence, it wasn’t really his fault. It was the BCCI’s operations team, the same one that had laid the rule for Chauhan to be there till the end of the first day’s play, who had after all booked him on the early morning return flight out of Delhi.
It wasn’t the only time, however, when a curator had ended up being at the wrong place at the right time during the “busiest ever” Indian domestic season of 2018-19. It was just that this match, in particular, got delayed by two-and-a-half hours, and ended up being highlighted for the ruckus that ensued. The only reason Chauhan, who’s originally the curator at Dharamsala, was even in Delhi was due to the BCCI’s idea of having neutral curators for the season. And perhaps the only reason he wasn’t at the Kotla when he should have – the operational error apart – was because the BCCI’s email laying out the schedule for curators around the country was sent out only to the associations. And this raises the possibility that Chauhan wasn’t even aware that he couldn’t just leave after getting the pitch ready. It wasn’t the only email the associations had received from the BCCI during those manic months. There were a slew of them. If anything, the emails never stopped coming. So in a way, could the association be blamed either for unintentionally leaving out one crucial piece of information for their visiting curators from the glut that had flooded their inboxes? You wonder.
But still back at Kotla, the question over–regardless of where Chauhan was at that point – why the pitch was not dry on time remained unanswered. According to some of Chauhan’s peers, it was purely a case of there not being enough time for them to be fully sure of whether a pitch was “ready”, considering they got all of six days in each centre to get it ready. And while the BCCI had bashfully welcomed their bumper season, which bumped up the number of matches under their aegis from 900 to over 2000, it wasn’t just the pitches that were taking a battering due to overuse, so were the personnel charged with preparing them.
Not to forget the paucity of grounds, which meant shifting matches from traditional centres to those in the far reaches of the country, often resulting in unnatural issues, in a cricketing sense anyway – be it crowd trouble at the Emeralds Height International School in Indore or slow-moving games in Dindigul where the ball would get lost in the jungle. It even led to a comical finish in a 50-over match involving Bengal, where they took 4 hours and 18 minutes to deliver 49 overs, leading the match to be decided via the VJD method in fading light.
What started off as a proud proclamation of a never-before-seen calendar of domestic cricket, purely in terms of quantity, turned into a horror show for the operations team, and exposed just how unprepared the board was to deal with this unprecedented workload. And the emails kept coming in.
The signs were ominous from the start, as far back as when Australia and South Africa’s A sides toured India in August for a quadrangular series.
Poor scheduling was one of the many issues during the season. © Cricbuzz
“What’s the news with the rains?” Theunis de Bruyn, a bit disappointed, a bit curious and a bit worried, asked.
It was only three days into de Bruyn’s stay in Vijayawada and the news of rains affecting the one-day leg of South Africa A’s tour of India had already brought gloom. Not only were the first four games of the series called off, but the teams also didn’t even have an opportunity to practice outdoors. A 30-odd kilometre journey for limited indoor training was the best they got.
On the face of it, this was a scheduling blooper by BCCI. June to October is not a good time to tour Vijayawada unless you’re there especially for the monsoons. It’s that time of the year when the city gets both the north-east and the south-west rains, which amounts to nearly twice that of the national average. In a face-saving act, BCCI eventually moved the games to Bengaluru and the number of league games was reduced from 12 to 6. How much of this scheduling misadventure you wonder though had to do with what was to come?
Eventually, it wasn’t just the players who were left hanging, as one of the touring managers put it, the experience was a ‘hell of a logistical nightmare.’ That wasn’t all. The production team, who had built additional structures for their facility, too had to see their effort and money go to waste.
The cricketing disappointment didn’t end in Vijayawada. Running parallel was the Duleep Trophy, once one of the most prestigious domestic tournaments, but now being hosted without the top 60 players of the country this season in Dindigul. Like over the last two years, it seemed like nothing more than a pink-ball experiment being hosted on dull, dead wickets. Rain also ensured that three out of four games ended in drab draws.
Though it presented a rosy image of more than 100 of India’s top cricketers simultaneously being on duty, the numbers had massively outweighed the quality of game time. And the emails kept coming.
Umpiring standards came under some heavy scrutiny as the season progressed. © Cricbuzz
The dark clouds, proverbially and literally, did lift as winter took over, but the additional stress on all concerned stakeholders was beginning to take a considerable toll. While curators scampered from venue to venue trying to get things in order, umpires too were following suit, and as a result, being left disillusioned.
“Earlier, we used to get at least four days of rest before every game and would turn up for a match two days in advance,” says one of the senior domestic umpires. “This year, coming just the evening before the game became the norm. In fact, for one of the days, I turned on the morning of the match.”
While the number of matches increased rapidly, there was no corresponding rise in the number of officials. As a result, the board had to make do with the available umpires, some of whom couldn’t deal with the stress. “The tiredness started reflecting on our work as we often lost concentration while officiating. Some of us even fell sick during matches.”
The telecast of some of the matches didn’t showcase the umpires in any good light, one that hasn’t been aided much by the systems BCCI has put in place.
The call for using DRS in domestic cricket has become louder, but even keeping the costs aside, one of the umpires argues, “They don’t have enough personnel to officiate, where will they get the additional manpower for DRS from?”
Even the mightiest cricketing board in the world were struggling to cope with the busy calendar, and never would they have imagined a scenario of not having enough people to man the various aspects of running a cricket match. They didn’t, for example, have anyone to handle the video equipment for the matches in the northeast, which had given birth to six new teams along with Puducherry, Bihar and Uttarakhand courtesy the Supreme Court order. For the first six games, there were no video equipment and personnel to record the game in order to assess the umpires.
In some other places, poor planning led to inexperienced umpires being paired up with first-time match referees to officiate in first-class games.
This also resulted in an awkward situation where the umpires were also given some power to assess the match referees. However, this power wasn’t always put to the best use.
On one of the winter evenings, a match referee blurted rather proudly about how he had deducted 30 points off an umpire, and the story spread around. As a result, in his next game, when he asked an umpire at the end of a day’s play to explain his decisions, the on-field official realised that his points too would be deducted. In order to get square with the referee, he rated him poorly on the assessment sheet. No favours. Worryingly, this wasn’t a one-off practice. It became rampant across the country.
In some other places, however, the animosity was dealt with by a ‘you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours’ practice between the match officials. BCCI took note of the discrepancies in the ratings by early January and shot another email, this time warning the umpires to discontinue the practice. Whether this email made a difference remains unclear.
Perhaps the BCCI should have known that not all of their email advisories would be heeded to as per their beliefs. They received a wake-up call rather early when Puducherry found a way of skirting past the rule of not playing more than three outstation players in their squad. The southern union territory team found a loophole in the eligibility criteria and played their first game in the Vijay Hazare Trophy with literally not a single local. After subsequent protests from the opposition teams, the BCCI shot another email, cancelling the registration of 8 players but there still remain around seven who have cleverly navigated through the rules of the system, right under BCCI’s nose, and are playing for Puducherry.
For the gung-ho attitude the board approached their maiden Supreme Court-inspired ‘cricket in every nook and corner’ season with, issues were bound to crop up. And it’s not like they always sat twiddling their thumbs. Solutions were sought, and solutions were provided, but they seemed more stop-gap than permanent, and more a case of missing the trees for the woods. The season’s not completely done yet. There’s still the IPL. And before they know it, the 2019-20 season will be upon them, and it’ll once again be bigger than ever. There’ll be fences to mend with the state associations, and a chance for the board and their operational teams to make harder decisions and ensure a smoother progress. And of course, there’ll still be a lot of emails to send out.