Team India, after losing the Twenty20 International (T20I) and One-Day International (ODI) series to South Africa, have made a positive start to the final leg of the Proteas’ 72-day long tour of India. Their 108-run win in the first Test at the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) Stadium in Mohali, has given them a 1-0 lead in the 4-match Test series. This is the first time India have led South Africa in this titanic tussle, named as The Freedom Series, with both sides having played good cricket throughout.
The home side had some really good individual performances in Virat Kohli’s first Test on home soil as India’s Test captain, but the nature of the pitch dominated the talking points right from the first morning of the first Test, which ended well within three days. It was difficult to describe the nature of the pitch that played all sorts of tricks, was overly dry and massively assisted the spinners from both sides. Even batsmen who are known to play spin well, looked confounded and had to give body and soul solely for survival at the crease.
This wicket was in stark contrast to the one dished out at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai for the fifth and final ODI, which South Africa went on to win – and thus clinched the ODI series 3-2 – emphatically. Indian bowlers, including the spinners, had nothing on offer from that pitch, on which the visitors put up a whopping 438/4 on the board after winning the toss and electing to bat first. Following the thrashing at the hands of the Proteas by 214 runs, Ravi Shastri, Team India’s director, was not impressed one bit by the Wankhede pitch and its curator, going onto caustically criticise him. I wonder if Shastri’s outburst following the Mumbai ODI loss, persuaded Daljit Singh, the Mohali pitch curator, to prepare the sort of pitch he did.
Yes, on one side of the coin, a pitch as the one in Mumbai, for a Test match, would have alleviated India’s chances of winning. It could also have seen South Africa carry over the momentum from their T20I and ODI series wins against the Men in Blue. Every one of us could understand Shastri’s cry for pitches favoring the home side, India, a call which is, by no means, an aberration. But how much of an aberration was the Mohali pitch, on which India exposed South Africa’s ineptitude to play spin? And why should India not be playing on such pitches?
Now, the Mohali pitch was not the first of its kind, as similar pitches have been produced in India in the past and ideally, at times when India have simply had to win to salvage their pride. Back in 2008, when South Africa toured India for a three-match Test series, Kanpur was the center of attraction for the aberrant pitch dished out, solely to favor India. The hosts were 0-1 down in the series and Kanpur was the venue for the final Test that India had to win to share the spoils. That Test match, like the one which ended in Mohali on Saturday, finished within three days, with South Africa lasting for only 55.5 overs and being bowled out for 121 in their second innings, on the third day. Their batting line-up capitulated against India’s spin attack that also had Virender Sehwag starring with the ball, bowling on a wicket that would have made any spinner look like Muttiah Muralitharan.
My first concern with such pitches being prepared in India is the lack of solidity currently exuded by Kohli’s men. They do not have a settled batting order – similar to their problems in the ODIs as well – and the likes of Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli himself, are short of runs. When Dean Elgar, a part-time left-arm orthodox spinner, got into his bowling groove on the first morning of the Mohali Test, the home side would have asked themselves if the overly dry pitch was showing signs of going against them. At the same time, one should not forget the confidence the Indian spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin, Amit Mishra and Ravindra Jadeja – would have garnered from Elgar’s spell of 8-1-22-4.
But, with India’s batting currently lacking stability and certainty, playing on such pitches could well boomerang for Kohli’s side. Alternatively, playing on good batting pitches will not only see India enjoy very good chances of winning but also allow the batsmen to pile on the runs, which should be one of India’s priorities as the home side.
Not only are some of the key Indian batsmen short on runs and confidence, but, with Kohli as the Test captain, they are now fielding a different playing combination altogether – in complete contrast to the 6-1-4 that we have become so used to seeing for a good 15 years. Kohli has made his penchant for playing five bowlers clear and, more often than not, has maintained his word since assuming India’s Test captaincy, officially, back in June, when India toured Bangladesh and played in a solitary Test to go with a three-ODI series.
India, therefore, are not only a batsmen short, but Wriddhiman Saha has yet to exude the kind of confidence and reliability that we could associate with MS Dhoni while he was there, even though his batting technique was in no way suited to the purity of the Tests. Beyond Ajinkya Rahane or Rohit Sharma, depending on who bats at No.5, India are not guaranteed many runs from their lower order batsmen. And, against ruthless bowling attacks with a potent spinner or two, they could well repent demanding for such dust bowls. India were 5/102 when Saha was dismissed on the first morning of the Mohali Test, and the result of the Test could well have been different if India’s last 5 wickets had not managed a similar score to propel their side to 204.
India are, at least for the next six months, not scheduled to play in another Test series, home or away, following the culmination of the ongoing 4-match Test series against South Africa. But if they indeed have the vision of becoming a top-class Test side and returning to the summit of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Test rankings, playing on such pitches will not help. It will severely limit the already remote possibility of unearthing a seam bowling all-rounder, and the tearaway fast bowlers – Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron – they have currently, will in no way enjoy, or benefit from, bowling on pitches like the one in Mohali.
If Kohli is determined to transform India into world beaters in the longest format of the game, he should ask for sporting and good batting pitches. Indian wickets will turn and assist the spinners if they are prepared well, starting with them being good for stroke play on the first couple of days before the inevitable wear-and-tear gives the chance of achieving a result, most importantly.
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It was disappointing to see the Mohali pitch contrived to increase the spinners’ impact on proceedings. 19 of the 20 South African wickets were picked by the Indian spinners, who, even on a pitch that assisted them, had to bowl the right lines and lengths to pick wickets, and should be credited for their efforts. Mohali has been one of the happy hunting grounds for India, with many of their batsmen relishing batting on this wicket that has largely been sporting and ideal for Test cricket. But there was nothing sporting about the track for the Test that concluded on Saturday, helping India take a crucial 1-0 lead in the series and giving them something to hold onto, for the first time in this titanic tussle. India, in the short and long term, should not be playing on such bone-dry pitches.