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Sidharth Monga in Hamilton
March 10, 2009
Oh seaming pitch, where art thou? It has been painful to watch batsmen v batsmen v rain so far. The first three one-dayers have been like matches in India, the only difference being the greener and smaller grounds. Why bother making a two-day journey across the world for the same brand of cricket, the Indians must be thinking.
If you had stopped following cricket after India's 2002-03 tour of New Zealand, you would need to pinch yourself to make sure these matches are being played in the same country. The younger batsmen in the Indian squad must be thinking what the fuss about difficult pitches, cold weather and low totals was about. But the pitches in New Zealand have changed, a prime example being Australia's failure to defend 340 twice two years ago.
Going into the fourth match in Hamilton, the talk has been about what is a defendable total. Going by the evidence from Christchurch, it's not 340. New Zealand's bowlers have talked about mysterious plans that they haven't been able to execute against India's batsmen. In the only innings that was uninterrupted by rain, the bowlers didn't seem to have any.
If Brendon McCullum is to be believed Seddon Park, the venue for Wednesday's match, should present the bowlers with a similar test. The boundaries are not as absurdly short as those at Christchurch's AMI Stadium but they are still not big enough to give batsmen headaches.
"We've seen plenty of runs on this surface in one-day cricket over the last two years," McCullum said. "I think tomorrow will be no different, and no doubt another high-scoring game. That's something the bowlers will have to get their heads around."
The sparse crowds in New Zealand have been treated to all kinds of good batting: Virender Sehwag's aggressive fifties at the top, Sachin Tendulkar's masterful 163, Jesse Ryder's maiden century in a losing cause, and McCullum's ability to score despite him not being at his best. The bowlers, however, seem to have gone missing, with the exception of Daniel Vettori and, to a certain extent, Harbhajan Singh.
Well Vettori did go missing in the third game, physically, to be with his wife who gave birth to their first child. For India, Praveen Kumar has been canny in patches, but ordinary at other times. Zaheer Khan and Kyle Mills, the men with big reputations, haven't been effective.
By now the bowlers must have started feeling for each other; they are a community that has been schemed against. They will also know that extra effort is necessary because the bowling conditions are unlikely to improve. It's a tough challenge with only a two-day gap between highly-charged games. In fact there was only a day's gap before the Christchurch ODI, during which the teams had to travel.
Spare a thought, too, for the less-experienced bowlers. Men like Iain O'Brien and Ian Butler, who is making a comeback from injury, and Munaf Patel, who had just started to find form. Their failure in such a hostile environment is not an accurate indicator of ability but it could decide the length of their careers. It is a massive test for all of them and they need to find a way. If they do, it will be fun to watch: Vettori making up for short boundaries with changes of pace and angles, Zaheer drawing on his experience of unhelpful subcontinent wickets.
There is an inherent flaw in the modern cricketing language too. Commentators, captains, experts instinctively call a flat track a "good pitch". A pitch which assists bowling is put in the "not-of-international-standard" category.
Tendulkar recently criticised the pitches on the last tour to New Zealand thus: "The wickets are great [this time around]. Not only players, but the spectators are also enjoying it. Last time we came here the bowlers got false confidence and the batters were looking for technical problems which didn't exist. I have at least not played on tracks like those and it wouldn't be ideal for the spectators either."
Most of it is fair comment, but the pitches are not great this time either. Not with the small boundaries at least, where edges and dabs go for boundaries and sixes. Won't the easy runs give some of the batsmen false confidence? Wouldn't bowlers be looking for faults that might not even exist when they look at their figures? The bowlers won't be thinking of all that though for they are facing the ultimate test of their skill and acumen.
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