Neither a bad pitch nor a good one
No India player wants anybody to talk about the pitch in Mohali, but there will be talk when a match finishes in three days. There was talk about Old Trafford (India 152 and 161 against England's 367) too, but it was just a quick surface with good bounce. There was talk about The Oval too, but on the same seaming pitch on which India failed to score a total of 250 in two innings, their bowlers allowed England to get 486. The sheer volume of voices and scrutiny when India are playing at home can be huge and perhaps suffocating for the players, but there is a hint of a victim mentality that India need to get out of, that when they do badly overseas nobody analyses the pitch.
There is a reason pitches are not always analysed when India lose. In 2012, just before England came to India, Virat Kohli, the captain now, asked for turning tracks for the series, and spoke of the "green tops" India had played on during their tours of Australia and England. What India actually got in Australia in 2011-12 were traditional Australian pitches: slow with slight seam in Melbourne, slightly green with spin later in Sydney, fast and bouncy in Perth and flat in Adelaide. Australia scored 333, 659 for 4 declared, 369 and 604 for 7 declared in those Tests. In fact India's two Test wins outside Asia in the last six years have come on green tops: Lord's last year and Durban 2010-11.
The surface in Mohali wasn't what you would call a hopelessly bad pitch where batting was impossible. It was perhaps not a fair contest between bat and ball, but it is okay to let it side with the bowlers once in a while. The Indian team, from what they have been saying in the press, didn't read the pitch as a turner raging enough to allow them to play just four bowlers. They felt it wouldn't be as easy to take the 20 wickets as it turned out.
On official parameters, the pitch answered in the negative to all the questions you ask of a bad pitch, or a pitch reportable to the ICC. Did it pose a physical threat to the batsmen? No. In fact the ball only stayed low. Did you still get out if you played good defensive shots? No. All six India specialist batsmen that fell to spin got out because they were too far from the pitch of the ball. A bad pitch is one where you get reasonably close to the pitch of the ball, and it still jumps up and hits your glove or flies up for a bat-pad catch, or stays low from a similar spot.
Of course a turning pitch plays on your mind and suddenly you are not so sure while leaving the crease to get to the pitch of the ball, but still the batting in the match didn't do the assessment of the pitch any favours. South Africa carried the threat too far, and batted as if it was impossible to survive on it. Had India scored 350 or upwards - and the India of the 2000s probably would have - there wouldn't have been much fuss over the pitch anyway.
Daljit Singh, the head groundsman in Mohali, also said this was a 23-year-old pitch, a tired pitch. The square has not been relaid since the ground was built in 1992. There is every chance, if there was less turn, for the pitch to have veered to the other extreme. If this match ended two days too soon on a turner, we might have needed two extra days for a result on a non-turner. A Test match that is close until the early exchanges of the fourth innings, even if it ends in three days, is better than a boring draw. Also, as MS Dhoni used to point out, such a pitch, turning from day one, almost takes the toss out of the equation.
There are two minor issues, though. Home advantage is good, but not always do visiting teams face home advantage to an extent that the pitch is a combination of almost two different surfaces. The middle of the pitch was absolutely flat and devoid of any bounce. The good-length areas were rough, offering turn. One hopes there was no Ranji Trophy-like foul-play to it, where different areas are rolled differently depending on the opposition's strengths and weaknesses.
The other, slightly bigger, issue is purely from a spectator's point of view. You go to a Test match expecting proper ebbs and flows, periods where batsmen have to work hard to survive, periods where bowlers have to work hard to take wickets, of waiting for a new ball, of waiting for a ball to lose its shine, of waiting for a pitch to break up. The time it takes for the drama to unfold is what makes Test cricket perhaps the closest thing in sport to life. The match that we saw in Mohali was disappointingly one-dimensional. Again the batsmen should take part of the blame for it.
R Ashwin is in the form of his life. The ball is coming out beautifully from his hand. It is dipping and drifting late. He is beating batsmen in the air often. He says he doesn't need any pitch to help him turn the ball. He says this might border on arrogance, but really it doesn't. He doesn't need this pitch to help him take wickets. It does him disfavours that his ball to Hashim Amla in the first innings - which dipped alarmingly on him as he left the crease - might end up being just one of the 35 wickets all and sundry spinners took in three days.
There was a tiring sameness to what happened. One such Test in a while can be thrilling to watch, but a series full of these will not offer any great joy. This was a series, as Ravi Shastri said, to be looked forward to. It should not end up being one-dimensional like the one India played in New Zealand in 2002-03. Hopefully the batsmen and the groundsmen will lift their game.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo