Of pitches and prejudice
The Test matches at Delhi and Ahmedabad produced some gripping cricket - fabulous batting, incisive spells of seam bowling, spin at its best and two fifth-day results. On the surface, there was enough and more to keep the spectators happy. Why, then, is the ICC suddenly scrutinising the pitches?
An Indian Express report suggests that match officials, headed by match referee Clive Lloyd, have prepared a report slamming the quality of the two strips used. Having reportedly called the Motera surface a dust-heap when he led the West Indies to India 22 years ago, Lloyd was allegedly no more complimentary this time. The Express report went on to suggest that Lloyd had asked for a probe from an ICC-appointed pitch inspector, most likely from Australia or New Zealand.
While there's no doubt that an unusually severe winter in northern India hampered preparations, the BCCI rotation policy with respect to venues is such that the northern region - Ahmedabad in the west was nearly as cold as Delhi - can't be completely ignored when drawing up a schedule. And despite the lack of time that the curator had in Ahmedabad, to suggest that the pitch was a dustbowl borders on the ridiculous.
It might be worthwhile to revisit a few facts that cast doubts over Lloyd's judgement. At Delhi, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman batted beautifully on the opening day, before Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene carried on in similar vein on day two. And then, on a supposedly crumbling pitch, Irfan Pathan played a magnificent innings that few who watched it will ever forget. So much for batting being impossible.
Pathan also bowled a superb spell in the Sri Lankan first innings, just as Chaminda Vaas produced fine bursts when India batted. So we can only conclude then that the allegations about a sub-standard pitch had something to do with Anil Kumble taking 10 wickets, and Muttiah Muralitharan eight.
The raging-turner theory falls flat though when you consider that Harbhajan Singh - who was to come into his own at Ahmedabad - picked up only one wicket in the Sri Lankan first innings, the same number that Murali managed in the second innings. That the majority of wickets went to spinners was merely testament to the outstanding quality of the bowling on display. Murali's spell on the second morning was as good as any ever seen on Indian soil, and Kumble's perseverance and poise later that afternoon nearly matched it. Dodgy pitch? How about great bowling?
Ahmedabad was little different. Laxman and Pathan produced splendid innings when India were under the cosh on day one, and their feats were replicated by Yuvraj Singh at the second time of asking. For Sri Lanka, both Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan -twice - produced innings of substance. There was some spirited new-ball bowling from Lasith Malinga, and some fine work with the old one from Ajit Agarkar. Yet again though, the wickets went mainly to the slow bowlers - 10 for Harbhajan, seven for Kumble, and six for Murali.
But so what? Does a pitch become dubious only when slow bowlers take wickets? If so, the SCG has been on sticky ground for over a century, with even Allan Border and Bob Holland scripting match-winning spells. And what of Lloyd's former Caribbean stomping grounds? There was a time when every Sabina Park game should have been played with the statutory warning: Injurious to batsmen's health.
As for Antigua - where West Indies have piled up 751 and 747, and chased down 418 over the past three seasons - and Guyana, 17 draws in 30 matches played, perhaps some dynamite is needed to prevent bowlers from falling asleep on a thankless job. And while we're at it, the ICC could perhaps investigate the mysterious case of the WACA, that former fast-bowling paradise where South Africa comfortably defied the world's best bowling line-up for nearly five sessions.
The reality is that the Delhi and Ahmedabad surfaces were no worse than many others prepared around the world. Perhaps the sight of slow bowlers taking so many wickets was an eyesore for a man who hardly ever included one in his side, but there was nothing sinister at work. Unlike the early '90s, when designer crumblers were the norm, Indian pitches these days involve plenty of hard work for the spinners too. There may have been the odd exception, like the Mumbai special that defeated Australia last year, but that was certainly no more diabolical than the two trampolines that New Zealand dished out on India's last tour there - Hamilton saw first innings scores of 99 and 94.
Rather than celebrate the distinct nature of pitches in different parts of the world, this latest episode seems to suggest a yearning for uniformity and blandness that does the game no good at all. Ball may certainly have dominated bat in the two India-Sri Lanka Tests played to a finish, but in a batsman-dominated world, that was something to celebrate, not condemn. Hopefully, the ICC will see sense, send the alleged report to the dustbin where it belongs, and focus on issues that matter - like dodgy actions and Zimbabwe.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo