It is only 22 yards long and 10 feet wide, but this little strip engulfed by the vast expanse of the outfield is the single most significant piece of the puzzle that’s the game of cricket.
In no other sport does the playing surface wield such an enormous influence, not even in tennis where three different variants are used in the four Grand Slams – red clay (French Open), grass (Wimbledon) and artificial turf (Australian and US Opens). And, in no other country do pitches for international contests come under as microscopic scrutiny as in India.
This scrutiny has assumed forensic proportions in the last four weeks. Victories in the last two Tests against England, in Chennai and Ahmedabad, respectively, have opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box, with opinions, castigations and accusations flying thick and fast.
One strident group of mainly but not exclusively former England captains has been über critical of the generous assistance spinners from both sides have enjoyed at Chepauk and in Motera. Another equally vocal unit, among them current and former world-class spinners from England and Australia, as well as the incomparable Sir Viv Richards, finds little unpalatable about the feast of spin that has been served.
Test cricket’s inherent charm for more than 140 years has lain in adaptability and versatility. In stepping confidently out of one’s comfort zone and delivering in alien lands, in front of hostile crowds, in unfamiliar overhead and underfoot conditions. In not being tigers at home and lambs abroad. In succeeding not just on home patch, but delivering eloquent statements overseas. That’s one of the main reasons why the sport’s governing body has steadfastly steered clear of trying to standardise pitch-preparation worldwide. If that was even possible.
Traditionally, teams from the subcontinent have had issues in England and Australia, in New Zealand and South Africa, where swing, seam and bounce combine to help fast bowlers stamp their imprint. Conversely, sides from these nations have struggled to come to terms with spitting, spinning, teasing, high-quality spin in Asia. The best in the business – bowlers and batsmen – have unearthed means to ensure gulf in performances between those at home and away are kept to a bare minimum. They don’t go looking for excuses, they seek solutions to challenges, precisely why they are the best in the business.
Consider this. India toured New Zealand towards the end of 2002 for two Tests and seven one-day internationals. They were crushed 2-0 in the Tests, and only won two ODIs on the back of out-of-the-world centuries from Virender Sehwag, the only three-figure knocks across teams in those nine games. The pitches for the Tests in Wellington and Hamilton were as spiteful as those used for the 50-over games – not just full of fresh, live grass but also with a fair amount of moisture that facilitated exaggerated seam movement.
India’s totals in the Tests read 161, 121, 99 and 154. New Zealand replied with 237, 36 for no loss (to complete a 10-wicket win), 94 and 160 for six (four-wicket victory). The Kiwis won both tosses, and rode on the skills of pace trio Shane Bond, Daryl Tuffey and Jacob Oram to exacerbate India’s misery. India’s inexperienced attack of Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar and Tinu Yohannan asked tough questions, but not with the sustained intensity of their counterparts, given they had no prior experience of operating in those conditions.
Nary a murmur was raised over the quality of the pitches. Instead, India’s celebrated batting group – Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman and Sehwag – was pulled up for not being good enough outside home territory. How the narrative has changed now, when very little is being spoken of England’s ineptitude against spin and so much scorn is being heaped, with social media an unwitting ally, on India for reaping the benefits of home advantage.
Which brings us to a topic debated fiercely only when India throw up ‘designer’ pitches – to be fair, there have been less than a half-dozen in the last decade – at home: Should cricket surfaces worldwide be made uniform so as to offer a level-playing field?
To begin with, the push for same-type pitches across the board falls flat on its face because of the impossibility of the exercise. The soil and the climatic conditions in each country vary dramatically; cricket is a summer sport in several nations in both hemispheres, a winter sport in Asia. And it’s anything but straightforward to import soil, and try and inorganically develop pitches in controlled circumstances before dropping them in for matches.
Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that this could still be pulled off, where does that leave the sport? Ask any cricketer worth his salt, and he will laugh at the absurdity of sameness in the longer version. Decks are anyway fairly regulated across the cricketing landscape when it comes to white-ball play – shorn of grass, rolled in nicely, flat as pancakes, designed to reduce bowlers to serfs doing the bidding of empowered batsmen. Pray, what sense does it make to replicate that formula in a format that by definition examines skill, stamina, fortitude, technique, character, courage, resolve and temperament, not who can hit the ball longer or harder?
Test cricket has been under threat for a while now from its limited-overs siblings. Its survival depends on adapting to changing times without sacrificing core values; the pink ball, for instance, is a necessary evil, but day-night Tests must remain a novelty, not the sport’s engine room.
Mechanisms are in place to ensure home advantage isn’t exploited beyond a reasonable degree, that no facet of the game is perforce sidetracked. Those tasked with ensuring these protocols are adhered to haven’t always called host associations/countries out, but that’s a kink that can be worked out. Just as India don’t expect anything but a grassy knoll when they play at Lord’s, Australia and England must be prepared for trial-by-spin in Asia. That’s how Test cricket has always been. Let incompetence not be the fuel for affected outrage.