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Go pro - the template to success in Ranji Trophy's Plate Group

How much have the professional players impacted fortunes for the nine new teams in the competition?

Milind Kumar kisses his bat after reaching a double century Milind Kumar

During their title run in the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy, Vidarbha's top seven contributed about 80% of all their runs off the bat. Of the men who batted most often in the top seven, Faiz Fazal was their highest run-getter with 912 runs.Vidarbha's three highest wicket-takers in the season were Rajneesh Gurbani (39), Akshay Wakhare (34) and Aditya Sarwate (29). They contributed 58% of the wickets taken by the team.
You would expect those to be numbers indicative of an overall trend. The top seven scoring 80% of the runs seems good and your top three bowlers accounting for three-fifths of the wickets on offer feels right. And they are, except when you look at the Plate Group of the ongoing Ranji season, comprised of nine new entrants.
There is an upending of the natural order here, driven by the professionals - players who move away from home to sign for a different team. Most of the professionals the nine teams have signed have been experienced domestic hands. But even so, some of their returns are staggering. Sikkim's Milind Kumar has racked up 705 runs in six innings, so is it any wonder that he considers the 61 he made against Uttarakhand last month "a failure"?
After four rounds, Milind alone has scored a whopping 52% of his team's runs. If the top seven have to contribute 80% of the runs, Milind alone is doing the job of four and a half batsmen.
Arunachal Pradesh's Kshitiz Sharma, Meghalaya's Yogesh Nagar, Manipur's Yashpal Singh, Mizoram's Taruwar Kohli and Akhil Rajput and Nagaland's Abrar Kazi have also been doing some heavy lifting. All of them, except Yashpal, are at around the 30% mark of team runs scored, doing the job of two and a half to three batsmen by themselves. Yashpal has almost 40% of his team's runs, and he's equivalent to three and a half batsmen for Manipur.
The trend is clear - it's the professionals who are carrying teams in the Plate Group.
And it's no different with bowlers. Pankaj Singh has taken 17 wickets for Puducherry, which is 59% of all wickets. He has done what three bowlers might have been expected to. Not too far behind are Bihar's Ashutosh Aman, Meghalaya's Gurinder Singh, Sikkim's Ishwar Chaudhary and Nagaland's Pawan Suyal.
No team is allowed more than three professionals, and not all nine teams in the Plate Group have filled up all three slots.
But some have also benefitted from having seasoned Ranji players come back. These players had a domicile in the new teams, but were playing elsewhere because until this season, their 'home' states didn't have a team they could play for. Puducherry's Fabid Ahmed, formerly of Kerala, has a 24% share of his team's wickets and 13.7% of the runs. Bihar's Samar Quadri, who has come over from Jharkhand, has taken 29% of the team's wickets.
Even if you forget the numbers and look at what has happened in a match, it's evident that team's fortunes are made or broken by how their professional players have done. But it would be hasty to judge these teams for that. You only need to look at how other teams that have been established for years - Tripura, Assam, Goa, J&K - still continue to struggle. This despite having access to BCCI's largesse of funds.
Until less than a year ago, the nine new teams didn't know whether they would actually be competing in the Ranji Trophy. To expect them to have good, home-grown players right from the start would be unrealistic. In fact, expecting anything other than this skew seen would have been naïve. So while there may be the occasional mis-match, and the Plate Group topper might face the prospect of heavy defeat in the quarter-final - ensuring that nine new states have their own cricket teams will benefit, more than harm, cricket in India in the long run.
And if anyone needs reminding of just how the Ranji Trophy started, the very first match of the tournament, between Madras and Mysore (as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were known then), was over in one day. Legend has it that those buying early morning paper at the railway station on that November 1934 day in Bangalore, to find out how their team had done, got the news from the people around them that the train carrying Mysore was just about pulling into the station.
If there is a criticism to be levelled at having nine new teams, it's the distortion they bring to certain traditional benchmarks. Previously, when a player scores 1000 runs or takes 50 wickets in a season, it suggested a readiness for higher honours. Would 1000 runs in the Plate Group carry as much weight? Milind already has 705. Gurinder Singh has 32 wickets. And we are only halfway through the league phase.
The BCCI knows that there is a marked skew among the new teams and most of the established ones, which is why it had to be inventive in setting the qualification criteria.
Ordinarily, if you have four groups, the top two from each would contest the knockouts. But that works only when all groups were equal in strength. They aren't in this Ranji Trophy and if the BCCI had tried to make them equal - by putting two new teams in each group - it would have led to a host of mismatches. So the board decided it will combine groups A and B at the end of the league phase and let the top five teams go through to the quarter-finals. Two teams from Group C and one from Plate will join them.
It may not be ideal, but if you want to dangle the carrot of qualification for new teams, it is necessary to have a fair, easy-to-understand and logistically sound system. The current method covers all of that as adequately as possible.
And who knows, as the erstwhile Mysore and Madras showed, rich legacies can be formed from humble beginnings.