India vs England: That's the way the pitch crumbles
England captain Joe Root would have laughed, had someone backed him to take the most economical five-wicket haul by a spinner in Test cricket’s 144-year history ahead of the day-night game against India.
With 5/8 written against his name at the end of Day 2, the part-timer wasn't smiling though. “I think it sums up the wicket, if I am getting a fifer.” Root’s subtle sarcasm could not be missed in his post-match comments. England had lost the match by then, in what is the shortest Test since World War II.
The cricket world stood divided with the result and the duration of the game. Was it the pitch? Inept batsmen? The extra lacquer on the pink ball or its pronounced seam? The twilight phase? Or…everything?
Let’s say all of that non-pitch stuff played its part. With that caveat in place, let’s look at the pitch and open with a question: if this track crumbled to the point that 17 wickets fell on Day 2 and batsmen from both teams—one with Root in it and the other packed with seasoned players of spin—struggled to get bat to ball, would it have even lasted till Day 5?
Former England captain Michael Vaughan had seen it on the very first day of the match, when he had simply tweeted: “2 Day Test??”
It turned out to be prophetic.
Rank turners are no exception in the sub-continent, but for a match to end in just over five sessions is altogether a different thing. This, even if the hosts boast of Ravichandran Ashwin (who became the second-fastest to 400 wickets in the course of the game) and an in-form Axar Patel (match haul of 11 wickets).
Yuvraj Singh took to twitter to question if this was good for Test cricket before congratulating Ashwin and Patel and saying:
“If @anilkumble1074 and @harbhajan_singh bowled on these kind of wickets they would be sitting on a thousand and 800?”
At the end of the match, Vaughan had another idea:
“If we are going to see these pitches ... I have an answer to how it could work ... Give the Teams 3 innings !!!”
There was counter arguments too. England great Geoffrey Boycott wrote on twitter: “There is nothing in the rules that says what type of pitch should be prepared. We had first choice of the surface and they were better than us. Simple.”
That was the divisive impact of the third Test—greats taking a dig at the conditions and the playing style of their own teams.
Virat Kohli though saw nothing amiss. It was a “very good” pitch to bat on he said and that the low scores (neither team crossed 145 in four innings) was due to “lack of application” from the batsmen.
Yet it is difficult to explain why so many great players of spin collectively forgot how to counter it in this match. Harder to explain why Root, who averages around 4 overs a match as a (very) part-time bowler in his 102-Test career, at one point had three wickets for zero runs and managed to get the likes of Rishabh Pant, Ashwin and Washington Sundar.
Root, for one, has scored three 180-plus scores in the last one month in the sub-continent. Rohit Sharma scored 161 on a rank tuner in the first innings of the second Test in Chennai, while Ashwin too scored a ton batting at No. 8 in the second innings.
Yet, apart from Sharma’s 66 from the first innings in Ahmedabad and England opener Zak Crawley’s 53, no other batsmen had an answer on this pitch. It wasn’t just the turn. It was the unpredictability. While some areas of the pitch provided massive turn, the ball also jumped up at batsmen from some other spots. None of this is to take any credit away from Patel, who got his 11 wickets buy displaying exemplary control and guile—setting up batsmen with vicious turners before unleashing an arm ball that went straight and either took the stump or trapped batsmen leg before, all of it at a seriously nippy pace with the hard lacquer of the pink ball making it zip off the pitch.
The Ahmedabad pitch saw puffs of dust at the popping crease right from the first session of the first day. As it got baked under the sun, it crumbled further. Even the bowlers’ landing areas got uneven due to loose soil and the batsmen’s spikes. Groundsmen could be seen trying to level it from the third session of the first day and throughout the second day. Even in Chennai it did not look as dusty on Day 1 as it was in Ahmedabad. That Test was on a rank turner but it went till the fourth day.
Another question: If wickets started falling the way they did in this Test on a green top with unpredictable bounce and great pace off the pitch, would it still be considered a fair track where batsmen needed to apply themselves?
Just because spin poses no physical threat to players does not mean the pitch is fit for a Test.
Not everyone agreed with the poor pitch theory. “We have seen Test matches played abroad with 14 mm grass. From time to time, we will also have turning pitches in India,” said Daljit Singh, the long serving former head of BCCI pitches committee. “England’s batting technique against spin was poor.”
That the batters were apprehensive and went in a shell after getting rattled by the spin on offer was for there for all to see. Hardly anybody stepped out and until the fourth innings the only six that was hit was by Ishant Sharma.
The pink ball played its part too. The extra lacquer did assist the ball to skid and visibility might have been an issue too.
Former India captain Mohammed Azharuddin went as far as to suggest that players should have used different footwear: “The key to batting on such dry tracks and rank turners is shot-selection and assured footwork. It makes little sense to wear spikes when batting. Rubber soles don’t hamper ability of batsmen,” he wrote on twitter. “I have seen some amazing Test knocks being played on tough surfaces by batsmen who wore shoes with rubber soles.”
BCCI curator Ashish Bhowmick, who was part of panel that prepared the pitch for India’s first day-night Test against Bangladesh in 2019, along with local curator Jayesh Patel oversaw the preparation of the pitches. Both were unavailable for comments.
In India’s first pink ball test at the Eden Gardens, the curators had left 6mm grass on the pitch. Usually, leaving grass is the norm in D/N Test to maintain the extra lacquer and shine on pink (which in turn improves visibility). Here at the Narendra Modi Stadium, the grass was gradually sheared off as the match day approached.
Amid a flurry of question marks on the pitch, the Ahmedabad ground will host the fourth Test too, starting March 4 and then the T20I series from March 12. It has 11 pitches on the centre square, with red as well as black soil.
“There was too much imbalance between bat and ball (in the third Test). With the variety of pitches available at their disposal and time on hand before the next Test, they can easily prepare a more fair pitch, by watering and rolling the surface well,” said Nadeem Memon, a past curator at Ahmedabad.
In the two previous Tests in Chennai, the track used for the first Test was red while the one for the second match had a darker look. The first was a batting paradise while the second one was a rank turner. It is quite possible that the next Test can have an altogether different quality of pitch.