Dead pitches killing Tests in India
Why aim for dominance when you can have somnolence? Why bother supporting the idea of a Test championship when you're doing your best to kill off the oldest form of the game? Why mouth platitudes about the sanctity of Test cricket when matches are played out in front of paltry crowds on pitches designed to drag the game off to the post-mortem table?
Comparisons may be odious at times, but in certain cases they're extremely instructive. Consider this. Over the past five years, 27 Tests have been played in Australia. Only two have been drawn. In South Africa, only three of 29 games did not end decisively. In that same period, Sri Lanka have hosted 22 games. Only four have gone the distance. And India? Ahmedabad was the 24th match in the last 60 months, and the 11th to end in a draw.
There's nothing quite as unique, or as nailbiting, as the exciting draw. The Oval, 1979, Old Trafford, 2005 and Cardiff, 2009 will never be forgotten. In the first instance, all four results were possible heading into the final over. Sadly for the Indian cricket fan, though, some of these 11 draws have been among the worst games ever played, mindless batting exhibitions on surfaces where the bowlers were neutered the moment the new ball lost its shine.
Back in 2004, Green Park in Kanpur, which has a reputation for dire games, hosted South Africa. After Andrew Hall sleepwalked his way to 163 in 588 minutes, India, with the exception of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, went on a go-slow of their own. By the time the match was called off, those that did bother to turn up were probably wishing they were Rip van Winkle.
The nadir was reached when Pakistan toured India in 2007. After an exciting and low-scoring opening Test at the Kotla in New Delhi, Eden Gardens and the Chinnaswamy Stadium hosted games where mountains of runs were scored and the bowlers were flogged mercilessly. Anil Kumble injected some excitement into his home Test by bowling seam-up, but that apart, those were two matches that brought back awful memories of the years when India-Pakistan games meant safety-first tactics on featherbeds and two sides paralysed by fear of defeat.
A unique hat-trick of deplorable pitches was completed in Chennai a few months later, as Neil McKenzie, Hashim Amla and Sehwag booked in for bed, breakfast and then some. Sehwag scored the fastest triple-century ever, but even when the teams mercifully shook hands on the final day, the pitch looked good enough to last another week.
Who then do we blame for these appalling surfaces, these games of batting practice? Dhiraj Parsana will be used for target-practice after this, but how much independence do India's curators really have? It's not as though Ahmedabad can't produce decent pitches. There was a generous smattering of grass 18 months ago when India were routed for 76 on the first morning, but South Africa, with AB de Villiers scoring a double-century, still managed a huge total in a three-day finish.
When Sri Lanka last toured, the game went to the last morning. There was a superb century from VVS Laxman, and wickets for both pace bowlers and spinners. Mystifyingly though, Clive Lloyd, the ICC's match referee, complained about the surface to his bosses, reinforcing the view that there's a deep-rooted prejudice against spin-friendly pitches.
The ICC, though, can only issue guidelines. It's the home board that's responsible for pitch preparation. The BCCI has a television deal that's on the basis of days of coverage. The broadcaster doesn't shell out for a certain number of series, it pays for a fixed number of days. Three-day finishes like the one in Mumbai in 2004, or the Kanpur game last year, are terrific entertainment for fans but not good news for the TV companies. To ensure that they don't frown, the paying public has to put up with snore draws.
There's nothing wrong with a surface being batsman-friendly initially, as long as it deteriorates over the course of a game. There have been some great finishes in Chennai (the Tied Test and 2001 were ones for the pantheon) and elsewhere, but at the Motera on Friday, you had to endure the pathetic sight of the game's leading wicket-taker, Muttiah Muralitharan, being reduced to trundler status. The bowlers' footmarks aside, there was barely an indentation on the pitch. It might as well have been marble from the quarries in Rajasthan.
Comments about declining Test-match crowds in India often ignore reality. People talk of the good old days when thousands turned up to watch drab draws all across the country. The England series of 1981-82 was especially devoid of excitement. But back then, entertainment options were few and far between. Most towns didn't even have access to television. You took what you got.
Now, with cable TV bringing every kind of international sport into your living room, why would you stomach mediocrity? When different kinds of entertainment are on offer, why drag yourself to a stadium to watch eight wickets fall in three days, and not one of them to an especially good delivery?
Whenever the IPL, which has the board's blessing, introduces a new innovation or an expansion to 10 teams and 94 games, we hear the word "entertainment". A few days ago, someone involved with marketing the league appeared on TV and announced that cricket had now become "prostitution". If that individual was speaking on behalf of the establishment, then it should surprise no one that Test cricket is being treated like a two-dollar hook-up in a dingy room with a lone lightbulb.
This is a series where the No. 1 ranking is at stake. You'd think that results mattered. But while Australia, South Africa and Sri Lanka leave little to chance as they pursue that ambition, India are content with being world leaders: at signing TV deals and producing bog-standard pitches.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo