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Saturday, March 25, 2023

Indian cricket needs to get its pitch right

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India has always been the land of spin. Puffs of dust, dry, breaking wickets, the rough outside the leg stump or otherwise, fielders around the bat, lots of chatter, sharp turn, unpredictable bounce — we have heard these terms for a long time. And because of this, the country produced great spinners and great players of spin too.

Comparisons are always odious and each era has its own compulsions. But cricket at its best (and perhaps at its most ideal) should be a contest. (PTI)

But the pitch was brought into sharp focus during the recently-concluded Test series between India and Australia — not because it aided the spinners (that has always happened), but because of how much it aided them. The first two pitches of the series were rated average by the International Cricket Council (ICC), the wicket for the third was rated poor by the match referee, and the fourth Test was played on a pitch that was as placid as it can get.

The ball turned from the first delivery as India chased the home advantage with the kind of fervour one usually reserves for far greater things. The bounce was uneven and as such, it usually seemed to make the game anything but a proper contest between bat and ball. Supporters of this tactic pointed to the green tops that get dished out when India go on tour. If anything, they argue, India were only returning the favour. Neutral fans, on the other hand, didn’t quite enjoy the Tests that tended to last just two-three days on average.

The length of the match itself can mean three things broadly: First, the technique of the batters isn’t good enough on turners; second, the pitch has made the game less about skill and more about luck, and finally, the curators are being asked to prepare a very specific type of wicket. Perhaps it is a combination of all three.

When R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja play together, India win 72% of their matches. The statistic is a result of the skill of the bowlers but also of the pitches that they bowl on. You still need to understand the right way to exploit the conditions and that is something the Indian duo has learnt along the way.

Speaking on the ICC Review, former Australia skipper Ricky Ponting explained how difficult it was for batters to play in this edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. “I am not looking at anybody’s form in the series because for batters it has been an absolute nightmare,” said Ponting. “We all know batting has been so incredibly difficult. And it has not been because of the turn, but also the uneven bounce which makes you lose trust in the wicket and if that happens you are guessing all the time which makes batting really difficult.”

So, the argument, then, is not about turners. Rather, it is one of the extremes. Did India push things too far in their quest to gain an advantage and is it fair to do that?

Turners aren’t new to India or to any team that comes on tour here. It is an expected challenge but the definition of the Test has changed over the years. In an article published in the Cricket Quarterly, Vol IV (1978), former India skipper Vijay Merchant, while comparing the bowling of Vinoo Mankad and Bishan Singh Bedi, wrote about how wickets were not “doctored” to suit the local bowlers in Mankad’s time. They were good for batting and called for bowlers to work out ways to dismiss batters.

“Mankad, therefore, had to attack the batsmen most of the time; and hence, gave away many, many runs in his attempt to purchase his wickets,” Merchant wrote. Mankad was a master of flight and even on those batter-friendly wickets, he managed to take 103 wickets in 23 Tests at an average of 26.53. The wickets would offer help, but that would usually happen on the fourth and fifth days of the match.

This changed by the time India’s famed spin quartet came into operation. India started looking to seize the home advantage a bit more, and, to do that, the wickets had to turn. That was India’s strength and there was no harm in exploiting it – or so went the line of thought.

“Bedi, on the other hand, bowled mostly in India on wickets ‘prepared’ for him — I mean, prepared for spin bowling,” Merchant wrote. In 30 Tests played at home, Bedi captured 137 wickets at a very good average of 23.99.

By the time the 1990s came around, India were playing three spinners often. Anil Kumble had emerged a potent force, especially at home, and that led to pitches continuing to favour spin. His numbers in India were impressive — 63 Tests, 350 wickets at an average of 24.88.

At this point, the demand for a turner was made through hidden channels. The curator could still, at times, ask the team to take a walk. But under the captaincy of Virat Kohli, sometime around 2015, this appeared to become less of a request and more of an order. It worked for India too, and few teams around the world could dream of the kind of home dominance that Kohli’s team achieved at home.

India’s overall record at home is very good (284 Tests, 114 wins, 54 losses, 1 tie, 115 draws, a win-loss ratio of 2.111), but it still can’t hold a candle to what they have achieved in the last decade — 43 Tests, 33 wins, 3 losses, 7 draws, a win-loss ratio of 11. So, the tactic or strategy is clearly working and, in professional sport, winning is important.

“Ruthless is the word that comes to every cricketer’s mind, not to give an inch to the opposition when they are touring abroad,” said India skipper Rohit Sharma just before the start of the fourth Test. “We have also experienced that when we have toured outside, the opposition will never let you come into the game or series, and that is the mindset we have as well.”

As the 16th-century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli once said, “A leader must be willing to sacrifice or lose his soul in order to save his country.” Kohli and Sharma have both done that and, in the process, done more than just save their team. They’ve made it flourish.

Comparisons are always odious and each era has its own compulsions. But cricket at its best (and perhaps at its most ideal) should be a contest. A scenario where bowlers dominate batters isn’t all that bad; and neither is making things as difficult as possible for the batters. But there’s a thin line between stretching something, and snapping it altogether.

It is a tightrope India have been prepared to walk for some time now. And while some might think it strange or even unethical, the team will argue it is only natural to do unto others as they have done unto you.


The views expressed are personal

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