Indian domestic cricket February 21, 2011

Is preparing sporting tracks so difficult?

"When you play in the semi-finals of a premier tournament like the Ranji Trophy, you want it to be played on a much better surface, not one that makes it a lottery"

"When you play in the semi-finals of a premier tournament like the Ranji Trophy, you want it to be played on a much better surface, not one that makes it a lottery. The mud was flying from where the balls were pitching," said Robin Uthappa at the end of first day of the Ranji semi-final. While one can understand Baroda's preference to play on an under-prepared track (Karnataka was a much stronger opposition), it would be impossible to not feel for the Karnataka boys, whose dreams of making it to the second consecutive final were dashed in just over five sessions of play.

But, there's a larger issue here. Karnataka lodged an official complaint which meant shifting the venue for the final in Baroda to the Moti Bagh Ground, and also, of course, preparing a slightly better pitch. I say a better pitch because it lasted five days, otherwise the track was so low and slow that it made for boring cricket. And that brings me to the perennial question that's haunting Indian cricket, especially domestic cricket. Is preparing a good pitch which has something in it for everybody so difficult?

Every season we witness at least a few matches finishing under two days. The tracks are either like the one provided for the semi-final, a rank turner, or have far too much grass left on them with moisture (if the hosts' strength lies in fast bowlers), like the match Delhi played against Orissa a couple of years ago. While both these tracks produce the much-needed result and with it the crucial five-six points, it has a damaging effect on the health of the game. These games not only inflate bowlers' figures to unimaginable enormities, but further boost their chances to stake a claim at the next level of selection. But mostly, they are not half as good as their figures suggest.

That reminds me of a match at the Karnail Singh Stadium a few years ago. There were stud marks on the good-length area on the eve of the match. The players were asked not to wear spikes while playing and, as expected, the match got over in five sessions with spinners ruling the roost. A debutant got a five-for and with that he cemented his place for the next few games and years. While everyone was aware of his abilities, the figures told a different story. The team lugged him around till he bowled straight into the keeper's gloves a few times in another first-class game and made a laughing stock of himself and the team. One under-prepared track not only made a mediocre cricketer last a few games but also blocked the way for talented youngsters from getting a look-in.

If underprepared tracks are misleading, the tracks, as good as roads, are equally flattering, as batsmen, in this case, make merry. What's worse is that it's not the nature of the track but the intent which is at fault on most occasions. The tracks for the Ranji Trophy semi-finals and finals this year got noted for the bounce and seam movement for the bowlers. The track in Delhi might not be the best surface in the country, but, if prepared properly, can assist the seamers and last a good four days. The onus is on the match referees to start pulling up the hosts for not preparing a sporting wicket which should be followed by a stern action from the BCCI. The danger of getting banned or huge financial penalty will work as a deterrent for the curator to not give in to the unreasonable demands of the team management. The chalta-hai approach has gone on for way too long and it's time to change the thinking. The rest shall follow.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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