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India v South Africa, 1st Test, Chennai, 1st day

'The wicket is very, very flat' - Harbhajan

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan in Chennai

March 26, 2008

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Harbhajan Singh: "It would have been nice to stop those 30 runs and see the scoreboard at the end on 270 for 4" © AFP
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All doubts over the nature of the surface were dispelled when Harbhajan Singh coined a sweet term for it. Paata is a term used to describe a benign, flat surface with very little in it for the bowlers but Harbhajan felt it right to call the pitch provided for the first Test as a super paata. So dopey was the track that WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] might send a few officials to Chennai soon.

"It was a first-day wicket and you can't rely on the patches [on the pitch]. You have to vary your line and length according to the wicket," Harbhajan said. "Let me tell you one thing. The wicket is very, very flat and it is hard for the bowlers to keep running in with the same intensity in this heat."

The irony about India preparing such tracks for home Tests is that their recent successes abroad have all come on bowler-friendly surfaces. Spiced up pitches in Kingston and Johannesburg have produced Indian wins; so have swing-fests at Headingley and Nottingham; so has a sporting pitch in Perth. It's high time someone realised that India's best chance of winning is on a track with some life.

The Chennai ground staff point out to the lack of preparation time. As recently as February 27 a Ranji Trophy one-dayer was played on this ground and 12 days of rain in between meant there was little time for producing a quality wicket. They probably have a case but the earlier India start putting some life into their pitches, the more advantageous it could be. Through the 1990s India relied on their spin formula to torment visiting teams but this is an era when their strength lies in seam and swing. Even their spinners thrive with a bit of bounce on the surface.

"I think it was very important to win the toss," Harbhajan said, "but the Madras [Chennai] wicket has always been like that. It has always been good for the batsmen for the first two-three days and then the spinners come into play. You can't really keep complaining."

The moment the toss plays such a big part in fortunes, you know something is amiss. Which brings us to the kind of bowling attack India choose for such death-beds. The conditions were always going to be hot and humid, the batsmen were bound to apply the pressure, and the bowlers were expected to tire. Neither Sachin Tendulkar nor Sourav Ganguly were given a bowl [the former was off the field for an extended period] and it meant long spells for the frontline bowlers. With 14 days to go in the series, it could well turn into a long and tiring one.

Choosing Irfan Pathan would have probably been one seamer too many and going with Piyush Chawla would have required one of the middle-order batsmen to sit out - a possibility which might have been pushing it too far. So in a way India probably had their hands tied but there should be a thought given, in the long-term at least, for playing five specialist bowlers. Even if one of them has an off day, the others could share the responsibility.

Where India really lost out was the amount of boundary balls they gave through the day. Forty- five fours on the first day of the match is probably twice as much as they would have targeted. Even more interestingly they managed 400 dot balls out of 540. So while they did the right things for most of the day, they kept taking off the pressure with the loose deliveries. Handcuff the batsmen for a while before opening the back door at exactly the wrong time.

Harbhajan agreed. "I think we have given a lot of boundary balls," he said. "In the first session we gave around 60-70 runs in boundaries. The first session is always important in a Test match and they dominated it. We did very well in the last two sessions and got those four wickets. It would be nice to have got one or two more wickets, but they batted well today.

"I think we have given around 20-30 runs in our fielding and that makes a big difference. I hope tomorrow we put in a good performance in bowling, batting and fielding. It would have been nice to stop those 30 runs and see the scoreboard at the end on 270 for 4."

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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