India v South Africa, 1st Test, Chennai, 5th day March 30, 2008

Stale pitch, monotonous cricket

Both captains might as well have shook hands at that point and planted a RIP sign in the middle of the pitch
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The once result-oriented surface at Chepauk was sadly not to be over the last five days, bringing bowlers from both sides down to their knees © Getty Images
 

Around 15 minutes past lunch, when VVS Laxman came on to bowl the first of his ten overs, there was no remaining doubt over the way the game was headed. Both captains might as well have shook hands at that point and planted a RIP sign in the middle of the pitch. Had we been living in the era of timeless Tests, this could have gone on for another week.

More such surfaces in the series and everything will be perfectly set up for the Indian Premier League (IPL). Test cricket's popularity has already taken a beating in India - what with the national broadcasters not covering this series - and such games only kill the interest further. The IPL has obviously had a knock-on effect here - the surface would have been ideal for a Twenty20. There was a bit of help for the spinners on the fifth day but it was definitely too little too late. Anil Kumble, who missed close to two sessions, was to later joke: "On this pitch, in hindsight, I would have played [Virender] Sehwag and Rahul [Dravid] and seven bowlers."

The curator is an easy target in these situations, but that's missing the point. What's often forgotten is the pitch committee - which is supposed to oversee preparations - the home team's instructions (though Kumble said he never believed in instructions) and a host of other political manoeuvrings. It's also important to remember that the pitch was re-laid in July last year and produced a Ranji Trophy season with two results in six matches (though two other games were affected by rain).

It's not just about one man and his roller; it's so much beyond that. How can a curator who has been around for 20 years, and produced one result-oriented pitch after another, suddenly change track? Take out the rain-affected games in 2005 (against Sri Lanka) and 1995 (against New Zealand) and you have to go back to 1987 to get a full game which ended in a stalemate. The second Test against Australia in 2004-05 was set for a certain result on the final day before rain thwarted all hopes. Obviously there's more to it than meets the eye.

"Maybe because of the rain they may not have got enough time to prepare the pitch," Kumble said. "Normally the Chennai pitch is good, there is always a bit more pace and bounce but probably because of the unseasonal rains, it didn't help us. I think the bowlers did the best they could possibly do on this pitch. You can't expect anything else."

 
 
How can a curator who's been around for 20 years, and produced one result-oriented pitch after another, suddenly change track?

Kumble had only recently spoken of the need to redress the balance between batsmen and bowlers, and the surface would surely have come as a big let down. "My only message is for the team to win, which I don't give to the groundsman," he said, pooh-poohing claims of him giving orders. "Whatever he prepares, we go and play on that. I am hopeful it will be an even contest between bat and ball."

Graeme Smith seemed to agree but insisted that credit must be given to the batsmen. "They made it count," he said. "Obviously you would love a wicket that allows a little bit more for the bowlers, but this is the wicket we were faced with. It will be interesting to get to Ahmedabad and see what the pitch looks like. We're hoping for a pitch that can provide a good balance between bat and ball."

Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla ensured that they feasted on the track. McKenzie completed the hundred that he missed out on in the first innings, while Amla fell just short of scoring centuries in both innings. Their approach wasn't too different from the first innings - they stayed positive and ensured the game was drawn. Only a few balls took off from the rough and it was never really that much of a struggle to pile on the runs. Additionally India bowled mainly part-timers for most of the day.

"I think we've dealt with spin pretty well this season," Smith said. "Against Pakistan, Bangladesh and now here. Our capabilities against spin - techniques, gameplans - are pretty sound. Depending on what we get now, it's going to be a challenge in the subcontinent."

He was clear that the same XI would take the field for the next Test but is he at all concerned about India playing three spinners in the next game? "If two can't do it, can three? I don't know. They need to sum up the wicket in Ahmedabad. It's the challenge for each team and each leadership."

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo