We are the back end of the Indian cricketing season and Indian captain Virat Kohli’s words echoed in most Test cricket fans’ minds when he said, “I thought England was the biggest series for us this season, but having won that 4-0, we want to consolidate on that against Australia. Everyone’s minds and hearts are already on it.”
The India v Australia series is upon us and the thrill of watching two of the better Test sides in a rivalry that has nurtured since the early 2000s will whet the appetite of most cricket fans. India start obvious favourites after having mauled each of their three previous opponents at home this season, but Australia is Australia, as tough as they come and hard to be brushed off as just another visiting side despite their obviously woeful recent record in Asia.
Sporting history provides enough evidence of underdogs knocking the star favourite out, against the run of play and without them realising what hit them. That’s the nature of professional sport, it’s played on the field and in the minds rather than on paper. And while on paper, and on social media, almost everyone is vouching for a series whitewash, it might not be that easy for India.
Australia’s biggest strength while playing at home in recent times has been their ability to conjure up bowlers to pick up 20 wickets on surfaces that look flat. Not much swing for the quicks, barely any spin for the spinners and manageable bounce – that’s been how pitches were till before the season that just ended.
The reason I bring Australia’s performance at home is because the pitches during the series against England and in that one-off Test against Bangladesh were on not-so-different lines, i.e. in five of the six Tests against those two opponents, batting was easy and bowlers, whether fast or spin, had barely any help till just before the curtains fell on the game.
The one exception to that was the surface at Visakhapatnam where there was enough turn from as early as day two and it got progressively better for the spinners. No other pitch replicated that kind of a behaviour and it was just down to the class of the Indian bowlers and the scoreboard pressure that the Indian batsmen exerted ensuring the opposition wilted as quickly as a Valentine rose under the scorching Mumbai sun.
Question then is, given Australia’s obvious comfort levels on flat surfaces and the type of pitches that were in use during the previous two series, will the tourists have a much better chance on the tour than has been afforded to them?
Take the pitch at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, which hosts one if the four Tests, as a case in point. Excluding the last Test that was played there which saw just one day of play possible, in the previous six Tests that were played at this ground, the lowest first innings score was 365. Other scores have been 478, 430, 626, 570 and 474 – totals that indicate the true nature of the surface. One that shouldn’t terrorise Australia too much.
The other three venues for this series will be making their Test debut, which means there’s not much data to go by except their showing in first-class cricket. And the extrapolation of a domestic showing into a Test match is never a good idea given how the surfaces used in first-class level are often designed to prepare cricketers for overseas tours. Or they could be prepared in such a way by the host association that it helps the home team, even if that means there’s a lot of grass kept on the pitch.
Last time Australia won a Test series in India, in 2004, the visitors had been dished out a pitch so palatable, it had their seamers licking their lips in utmost delight. The grass on the pitch must have reminded messrs Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz of that in their backyards and a demoralised Indian team fell away to a whopping 342-run defeat, in turn surrendering the Final Frontier.
Recalling that incident, Matthew Hayden, one of the Aussie openers on that tour, wrote this in his autobiography:
“The curator, a famously single-minded character with no love of the Indian hierarchy, ignored pleas to shave the deck and left a healthy covering of grass. It reminded me of Gabba (in Brisbane). To have that sort of wicket for the deciding Test of an away series – particularly in India – was the most pleasant surprise imaginable.”
“When Ganguly and Harbhajan went out to see the deck a couple of days before the game, they looked like farmers inspecting crops after a hail storm. We predicted neither would play and they did not. Ganguly withdrew with a leg-muscle injury that flared up suddenly and Harbhajan had an even more sudden dose of food poisoning. We put their ailments down to acute cases of ‘greentrackitis’, where you develop a severe intolerance to green wickets likely to give you nothing as a spin bowler and plenty of headaches as a batsman.”
Why was that Nagpur surface so green? Only those involved in those times can probably tell but there have been a few fingers pointed at the machinations between the top honchos of the state association and the national board that looked to have led to that fiasco. Nobody came out looking good either.
The reason one goes back in history is, sometimes, to learn from it. The Indian board is currently in a bit of a flux after the Supreme Court rulings saw a new committee brought in to replace the old one till fresh elections take place. Will that play any part in what Kohli and co. want from their pitches? Should make for as interesting a watch as the Test series itself.