Surface tension before series decider
Pitch reading is a hazardous occupation at the best of times. But from the look of it, the surface at the Green Park stadium in Kanpur is designed to yield a result. The question, however, is how long the match will last. One-down in the series, India would have hoped for a turner, and South Africa would have expected it. But neither team would have quite bargained for what they have got.
Greame Smith has described it as the least-prepared pitch he has seen in his playing career, a view shared by a senior Indian player who said it was unlike anything he had seen.
Underprepared, dry, and cracking already, there is no telling what this pitch might do. Let alone spin, it might make any bowling dangerous to face. While Tests like the one in Mumbai against Australia in 2004-05 are fascinating once in a while, especially when quality batsmen like Jacques Kallis and VVS Laxman negate extremely difficult conditions, this one might not be just a regular crumbler but one with completely unpredictable bounce. And that might not necessarily be advantage India: South African pacemen can be deadly too.
The ball might dart around, bounce unevenly, spin alarmingly; no-one really knows. And both the camps are concerned with the wicket. Just after India's capitulation ended in Ahmedabad, reports started pouring in that they had already stopped watering the track at Green Park, which turned out to be close to the truth [there hasn't been any heavy watering for the last four-five days]. This is also the first Test in Kanpur being played in summer [all the other 19 have been played between November and February]. As a result the wicket is flirting with the line that separates an average crumbler from a substandard wicket.
Shiv Kumar, the curator, promised a "wicket that will surely produce a result and assist spin". Daljit Singh, who's part of the BCCI's ground and pitches committee, chose to call it - perhaps for novelty's sake - a "sporting track".
This one looks nothing like it. Mickey Arthur, the South Africa coach, was perhaps closer to the actual description. "The wicket will go through the top very early, but we are prepared for it," Arthur said. Graeme Smith joked at the pre-match press conference that it had already started cracking a day before the game, leave alone the third and fourth day. Kumar says it will turn from day three onwards, but South Africa expect it to start breaking anytime after the first ball is bowled.
Ever since India suffered an innings defeat at the hands of West Indies in 1983, Kanpur has not produced a track that has favoured fast bowling. It has mostly been a slow turner, like the one in 2004, something Kumar says will not happen this time, believing the dry heat will ensure it breaks up in due time.
And if the Green Park track does crumble - and that's an important "if" because these are all predictions that can go wrong - it will be because of a situation India have been forced into. Their fast bowlers have taken a total of three wickets in the series so far. Ishant Sharma missed both those Tests, RP Singh has looked completely out of sorts, and Sreesanth hasn't given South Africa sleepless nights either. A genuine sporting track, as Ahmedabad was, will definitely not suit India, given the form their pace bowlers are in. Being 1-0 down in the series, they can't afford a Chennai-like sleeping beauty either. As a result they have put all their eggs in the spin basket, perhaps the only basket they had.
The hype and anticipation built around the pitch is not less than the one in Perth created earlier this year when Adam Gilchrist was reportedly not sure how far was too far when keeping to Shaun Tait. Perth did not turn out to be the terror it promised to, Green Park just might.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo