The IPL is into its second week. We are already having an overdose of preaching from the pulpits of coaching Gurus of various teams on their preparations and their secret strategies. Though I did express my intention to deal with both the short term and long term preparations, I have decided to concentrate on the more foundational part and leave the short term to the Gurus pontificating from the coaching manuals.
As distinct from preparation for the game ahead, the preparation for the season and preparation for the long term development of the game requires Cricket administrators exercising their vision with the help of experts, much in the manner of a political leadership framing policies for a country and implementing them with the help of experts and bureaucrats.
It has been said over the years that 'a minute spent in organizing saves hours'. One could say that it is only a truism but nowhere is it more truly exercised than on the cricket field. Here it is not saving hours which matters but adding the value which good preparation brings. A team is built not by the coach and captain alone, but has behind it months and years of planning and execution of a good action plan.
The 2010-11 Rajasthan Ranji campaign nominally began at least six months ahead when a brainstorming session was held in the RCA Academy, but the seeds had been sown at least a year earlier when all inter-district tournaments were converted into multi-day formats. The brainstorming session was a mid-point in a process which had already been set into motion. It was there that we decided to give the confidence to youngsters that there would be no compromise on selection, that selection would be a process rather than a collection of opinions, that selectors would themselves follow a code of conduct, that there would be no compromise on fitness, etc.. It was also decided to give confidence to the youngsters by remedying the historical weakness of Rajasthan cricket, its batting, by bringing 3 batting professionals. They were then put through their paces by exposure in Delhi and All-India invitational tournaments and the rest is history.
In the longer term, one has to have a system which will keep feeding a good bench strength to the various teams. To have a good team, the bench strength is also of utmost importance. Unless you have quality guys pushing those in the team, you will never get the optimum performance. This is the human nature. To get that bench strength, you have to have a good tournament structure, both at the school and age-group levels, and of course a reasonably good level of pitches and grounds for grooming the talent which is usually aplenty but gets wasted due to lack of a well prepared organization for honing it.
In order to achieve this, a few things are of utmost importance. The first element is umpiring in the inter-district tournaments, the second is playing conditions and the third is level of competition. A lot of talent suffers and gets wasted due to poor umpiring standards, playing conditions and lopsided competition. Taking a cue from BCCI, Rajasthan has become the first and only state team to introduce Match Referees at this level. All competition in the Elite groups of senior and age group levels is on turf wickets, and all teams are allowed to take up to 3 players from outside their district to balance their teams. The competition is, therefore, intense and results are good. This year, we have introduced multi-day U-14 and inter-school tournaments and taken another step to prepare for improved standards.
The inspiration for this level of preparation is of course Bombay. The story of Indian domestic cricket is the story of domination of Bombay (now Mumbai). Bombay has won 39 out of 77 editions of Ranji Trophy, 15 of them being back to back from 1958-59 to 1972-73. Delhi and Karnataka, with 7 and 6 wins respectively follow next, having got all their victories in the post 72-73 period and this is also the period in which teams like Haryana, Punjab, UP, Railways and now Rajasthan have won the Ranji Trophy. What is noteworthy is that in spite of the emergence of lesser state teams, Mumbai has still taken the Trophy 19 times in this very same period.
This domination is not accidental. This is the result of the enormous preparation over nearly a century. Bombay had a head start no doubt. In the quadrangular, it had the beginnings of the first class cricket and before anyone knew it, it also had the first turf wickets and an enviable tournament structure. Bombay cricket administrators had a system in place. The city has always sported what is glibly called 'cricket culture' and has dozens of cricketing icons to teach and inspire youngsters. Some other states have put in place good systems, notably Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. A lot of other states continue with their old age club systems, some managing to keep quality and a lot of them faltering. Other than Rajasthan winning the Ranji Trophy this year, the other stories of domestic season are no doubt Mumbai losing to Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Haryana in the 4-day, one day and T20 formats respectively. It was also educative to see the best of West Zone (with many Mumbai players) foundering to 101 all out on a sunny day on a somewhat greenish end of season strip against Joginder Sharma, Ishant and Sumit Narwal. It does look as if the rest of India is catching up and Mumbai needs to pull up its socks. That requires planning and execution to prepare for the 21st century challenges.
Cricket Australia is presently going through ferment as well. A strong domestic structure is what has sustained it through the years. Its competitiveness was the envy of it all, but some wrong decisions by Cricket Australia have devalued their best element of preparation and we can see the results.
To sum up, elements of preparation in the long term have a slightly different texture and context as compared to preparation for a tournament or a match. It requires planning and execution of a really high order. No winning combination can be sustained on the basis of a hollow foundation. There are a few journalist friends who give the Delhi example, but that team is on a downward spiral because of the reasons enumerated above. The sheer wealth of talent may give Delhi a few results from time to time but nothing sustainable is likely to happen if they do not put a plan in place. Good processes, good plans, good administrators and good experts is what it will take for a Cricket Association to prepare for the 21st century.