Moving from the outer parts of the ground to a pitch represented a big leap ahead in a budding cricketer’s life. This suggested you had arrived and brought with it great excitement and sleepless nights – at least before the first few matches, till experience had steadied the nerves.
The three big grounds towards the southern end of the city – Oval, Cross and Azad – was the haunt for my team. Shivaji Park was too far away for those living in South Bombay, the Gymkhana grounds on Marine Drive unaffordable, the CCI and Bombay Gym beyond comprehension.
The Azad was the busiest but with a haphazard distribution of pitches, sometimes two of them being within 10-15 yards of each other. This often led to confusion: you could take a catch from the wrong match, or drop one from your own in trying to evade a shot from the other!
Our favourite would be the Oval stretching from Eros Cinema to Cooperage Bandstand, with the High Court, Rajabai Tower and Mumbai University testimony to the exploits of cricketers of all ages and shapes.
The pitch was the centre of curiousity and debate, as it is at every level. My first experience of its importance came even before setting foot on it, when watching the maali at the Oval pour some water over the 22-yard strip and then use a roller over it.
Barely 10 then, I asked the maali how this worked. “If you roll it for a long time, it is good for batting, but if it is damp, it could help bowlers,’’ he said. “We try and make it good for both batting or bowling, but if some team wants an advantage it can be done.’’
Over the years, one saw this being done through moral persuasion, show of power, and sometimes through a Rs10 note discreetly passed off to the maali before the start of play. Occasionally, a maali would be stubbornly unmoved, much like Eden Gardens curator Prabir Mukherjee is now.
It need hardly be said that cricket’s much-touted idealism has often been practised in the breach – at every level and all over the world. This is hardly news. And the pitch, one of the wonderful imponderables in this great game has often been subject to manipulation to provide ‘home’ advantage.
For instance, when India toured England in 1967 under Pataudi, the team had four spinners (all four even played in the third Test), but seaming pitches nullified the threat from Prasanna, Bedi, Chandra and Venkatraghavan. India lost 0-3. Ditto in 1974 under Wadekar.
Home advantage is virtually a covenant in cricket. However, the brazenness with which MS Dhoni has gone about making his demand for turning pitches has rankled purists and lay fans alike.
I suspect this reflects the Indian captain’s current insecurities. After a spate of massive defeats overseas, he wants to redress his and the team’s record in home Tests. To be fair to Dhoni, he is ready to risk walking on a razor’s edge by asking for crumbling pitches.
The tactic, of course, boomeranged badly at the Wankhede where England’s spinners bowled better than India’s and India’s batsmen bombed in conditions where they were expected to excel.
The antidote to this, as any maali at any of Mumbai's maidans will tell you even today, is that whatever the preparation of the pitch, a team must have players with the skills and self-belief to play on it.
This, in fact, should be Dhoni’s big concern in the Kolkata Test. The problem is more in the minds of his players in the dressing room. By focusing all attention on the 22-yard strip, he is making the wrong pitch.