In pursuit of a sporting track
The gap in the Ranji Trophy season offers a chance to look back at the most sensational match of the fifth round, between Delhi and Orissa at the Feroz Shah Kotla . Sensational, because it took a few minutes more than five sessions to fold up - 40 wickets fell in 128.5 overs. The contest featured quality batsmen including Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Aakash Chopra, Shiv Sunder Das, Virat Kohli and Mithun Manhas against the gentle swing bowling of Debasis Mohanty, Basanth Mohanty, Sukanta Khatua and Sumit Narwal, and more fiery pace from Ishant Sharma.
The immediate explanation of such a wicket-feast is the inability of batsmen brought up on flat tracks to handle anything approaching green. "The batsmen don't usually play on these tracks, so they are obviously taken by surprise," Venkatapathy Raju, Orissa's coach, affirmed. Something similar happened in the semi-final between Uttar Pradesh and Saurashtra in Vadodara last year, which lasted 191.2 overs, or a little over two days. Dilip Vengsarkar, the then chairman of the national selection committee, was there, and was not impressed. "There is nothing wrong with the wicket; they haven't shown any application. They are playing way too many shots," he had said.
This pitch was different from the one at the Moti Bagh ground. There was a lot of grass left and more than enough moisture just under the surface - and the overcast skies made sure it stayed there. One player called it a "wet" surface from the good old days. The movement in the air was a given. That's not what undid the batsmen, though. Upon pitching, the ball moved exaggeratedly, without pattern. An outswinger could move in after landing, an inswinger away.
One instance summed up the pitch. Cricinfo was among those who reported that Chopra went for a booming drive in the first innings, got an inside edge, and lost his stumps. In the absence of replays, it seemed the only way he could have got out to that outswinger was by playing on. Chopra had a different version. "I didn't touch it," he said. "It was an outswinger all right, but it pitched and came in sharply." Another batsman said he had played on even grassier tracks, but the moisture underneath made this a real difficult pitch to bat on.
If there were too many shots played, it was because that was the only way to go on that surface. Not surprisingly, only seven batsmen were out caught-behind to traditional swing - two of them being tailenders. Eighteen were cleaned up, five of them leaving alone balls well outside off, only one of them to a superb outswinger from Debasis.
The match revealed a lot about the curators in India, the nature of pitches, and the way domestic cricket is played. This was the same pitch on which India and Australia couldn't buy a result a month earlier, the same pitch where Sahil Kukreja scored a double-century, and Ajinkya Rahane 160, two weeks ago. This match proved that the Kotla is not a natural paata and that sporting - or lively - pitches can be made here. It's a different matter that this wasn't sporting at all. Something similar happened in the Vadodara game last year. At the same venue earlier that season, Bengal were 221 for 0 on the first day against Baroda, and in another match Baroda drew against Orissa.
"It was a tough pitch, but we get these only in special circumstances," Raju said. Indeed, there are only two circumstances when difficult pitches are on view in domestic cricket: when games are held at neutral venues or when the hosts are desperate for an outright win. This was the second case. Delhi, defending champions, had only six points from their first four games, and anything less than an outright win would have meant a huge blow to their title hopes. Hence the gamble.
That gamble may have backfired but for Ishant's extreme pace, the like of which Orissa batsmen hadn't faced before. Ishant's presence should actually have prevented Delhi from opting such a desperate measure; he has, after all, taken wickets on much flatter pitches, and giving such a green track would have only played into Orissa's hands for their bowlers revel in conditions that help swing.
Delhi's coach, Vijay Dahiya, didn't think the tactic was prompted by the need for an outright win. "We wanted a similar wicket at the Roshanara but that wicket's nature is that the moisture doesn't stay," said Dahiya. That match, in fact, featured early movement, but no threatening bounce and hence petered out. "We wanted a similar wicket against Mumbai, but Ashish [Nehra] was not fit then."
But was this exactly the pitch Delhi wanted? "No, this was a little damp," Dahiya said. "But these are not made regularly. So you don't really know how to make a real sporting wicket; you leave a bit of moisture. Half the curators don't know how to make a good track. You ask them to make a flat wicket, they can do it. Apart from that, it's either the nature of the surface and soil, or extreme measures."
Delhi, sadly, don't have any more home matches this season. Otherwise it would have been interesting to watch more Kotla games, because the home side still needs outright wins from their last two games to progress to the knockouts. They next travel to Saurashtra, who are placed well at the top of the group. Normal service should resume in Rajkot.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo