India's Christmas cracker
Mention pitches and the 1997-98 season and most people will recall the farce at Sabina Park in Jamaica when the first Test between West Indies and England was abandoned after half-an-hour because the Kingston surface was considered far too dangerous. But that was not the only such occurrence that season.
On Christmas Day 1997, India were scheduled to meet Sri Lanka in the second of three one-day internationals at Indore. India had eased to a seven-wicket victory in the first match at Guwahati and the two teams headed 500km south west for the second game.
Ahead of the series, the Indian management had expressed a preference for grassy pitches with bounce, a ploy aimed at nullifying the strokeplay of the Sri Lankan batsmen. What India found when they arrived at Indore was a virtual dustbowl.
Narendra Menon, the groundsman, said that the pitch would offer help to both spin and pace bowlers. But even a cursory glance at the surface, which was cracked and dry, made it apparent that it would certainly not favour the batsmen.
Heated discussions took place between Menon and the Indian management, and Menon was persuaded to hastily prepare an alternative strip. He and his staff cut, watered and rolled a second pitch. While they were doing this, the Sri Lankans arrived on the ground.
They very quickly flagged their objections, believing that the second pitch was being readied to assist the Indian bowlers, and given that the original one was ready, they insisted that it be used. The match referee, Ahmed Ebrahim of Zimbabwe, was consulted and he ruled that the first pitch had to be used, rightly pointing out that it was not possible to prepare an adequate surface in less than 24 hours.
Both sides knew what to expect, and India drafted in offspinner Hrishikesh Kanitkar for what was to be a remarkable debut - "when the ball landed on the wicket, it was exploding and the bounce was totally unpredictable," he later recalled. Arjuna Ranatunga won the toss and chose to bat. The fun started almost immediately.
Javagal Srinath opened the bowling - at what reports said was below top pace - but still extracted remarkable bounce and sideways movement. With the fourth ball of the innings, Romesh Kaluwithrana was undone attempting an ambitious drive and dragged the ball into his stumps. Roshan Mahanama got a single off the first delivery he faced, and the last ball of the over snorted off a length and flew off the splice of Sanath Jayasuriya's bat to Rajesh Chauhan at first slip, but somehow he dropped a regulation chance.
Sachin Tendulkar opened at the other end with Chauhan's offspin, and both sides were stunned when the first ball pitched well outside Mahanama's off stump and ripped past his leg stump, evading the hapless Nayan Mongia and going for four byes. The rest of the over followed a similar pattern with the pitch clearly disintegrating even that early in the game.
Srinath's second over was a lottery. The first ball barely got above ankle height, the second flew off a length, the third was another shooter ... by this stage both batsmen had decided the only way to survive was to lunge forward and hope. Inevitably, someone was going to be struck, and Srinath's sixth ball rapped Mahanama a painful blow on the glove. At that point both batsmen made clear their unhappiness to the umpires.
Ranatunga walked out to the middle to talk to Tendulkar, and they were soon joined by, among others, Ebrahim. After an hour of discussions, Ebrahim decided that the pitch was simply too dangerous, despite the angry protestations of the Indore authorities. But this raised another difficulty - the crowd. A full house of 25,000 was packed in to the Nehru Stadium and a cancellation could have had serious public order repercussions. Faced with this scenario, both captains agreed to play a 25-over exhibition match on the adjoining strip.
No sooner had that rather half-hearted game concluded than the Indian authorities fenced off the pitch and sent for Kapil Dev to investigate what had happened. And one local lawyer went as far as demanding the arrest of Ranatunga, Tendulkar and Ebrahim for abandoning the match and depriving him and other spectators of the right to watch the match. But the appalling state of the surface was underlined when Ravi Shastri ambled to the middle and poked the toe of his boot into it on a length - and, with minimal force, gauged a hole in it.
Media reaction almost unanimously slammed the organisers. "Those who were in charge of preparing the wicket should have understood that this is not a game between two village teams," one reporter fumed." It was being played by world champions Sri Lanka and India, who also were the champions of this game a few years back." Others demanded the ICC punish the offenders, but it was left to the Indian board to temporarily remove Indore form its list of sanctioned grounds.
The man who took the lion's share of opprobrium was Jaywant Lele, the Indian board secretary, who was in charge of a move to improve pitch standards across the country. His post-match assertion that "the match referee was hasty - he should have waited for three more overs," just made him look silly, and for good measure he added: "Cricketers are well protected these days with helmets and padding. And anyway, batsmen can get hurt even on good pitches."
It was not Indore's last brush with controversy. In 2001, a year after international cricket returned to the city, the ground was the venue for an ODI between India and Australia. To the Australians' disbelief, they looked on shortly before the start as an old lady with a wicker basket scooped up dung as cow walked ahead of her. That was the last ODI played at the Nehru Stadium.
- Sri Lanka won the third ODI at Goa and so squared the series.
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The Cricketer -1997
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack - 1999
Rediff.com - Various articles
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo