The Kotla wicket has a mind of its own
Manoj Prabhakar, the Delhi coach, had stuck his key into it a day ago. Venkat Sundaram, chairman of the BCCI's newly reconstituted pitches and grounds committee, walked around it this morning breathing a little easier. The Delhi team lay sprawled on it at stumps looking like men who had survived the Sahara on thimble-fuls of water. The commentators' expressions were downturned, DDCA officials' were upturned and Kirti Azad was trying to turn over all its skeletons, bringing up the cost of its reconstruction ("Eighty lakhs!" he thundered in the press box, "is this what eighty lakhs have been spent on?!") and the folklore of medieval burial grounds beneath.
In the melodrama that is life around it and the lamentations that echo during the course of its normal day, the Feroz Shah Kotla wicket lay undeterred by slander and unimpressed by prediction. The opening day of the 2010-2011 season was to mark the first four-day match to be held at the Kotla after an India-Sri Lanka ODI was abandoned due to a substandard wicket on December 27, and then banned for a year by the ICC.
The match was to be shown live on TV, the ICC were watching, a World Cup was less than four months away and fast bowlers were hoping to burst onto into the season with a resounding display of skill. It did happen. Not at the Kotla though, but 250 km away in Jaipur, when Deepak Chahar erupted and Hyderabad imploded.
Delhi's new wicket produced same-old, same-old and that from a history earlier than December 27, 2009. The Delhi v Bengal Super League match was taking place on a strip at a good distance from the India v Sri Lanka horror. The home team thought they had enough clues when Prabhakar said his key had revealed that there was moisture under the wicket yesterday ("And so, you win the toss and bowl with eyes closed"). On Monday morning, when he had a brief bowl himself, he discovered that the ball had none of the bounce his key had promised. Bengal turned up, won the toss and centurion Arindam Das said, they saw what was coming - inconsistent bounce and the odd skittering around the bootlaces, "But this is the Kotla, we were prepared. There was no demon in the wicket."
For a few decades now, the Kotla has yearned for demons, other than those that many say occupy its offices. Or maybe at least some golden age where its bowlers will open a season with bounce that belongs, at least to the Roshanara Club, if not Mohali in its prime, and a winter that will produce a harvest time for swing. Das said that the first hour and half had allowed the ball to wobble a bit on the seam but as an opener, he knew watchfulness would see him through. As for any threat from the Delhi bowlers' in the time when there was little assistance, the mostly sombre Das smiled and said, "Most of the time, I got it in the middle of the bat." The bowlers, he said kindly, had bowled well in "patches". Perhaps he meant patches the size of handkerchiefs.
The batsmen's internal labours remained. "Strokemaking was difficult, it was not easy to drive the ball. When the field was packed on one side, it was hard to score runs," Das said. Bengal played in the orthodox 'V' and didn't try to be too adventurous, avoiding hitting across the line, and waiting for the right chance to pull. It came in good measure. "Maybe they missed a spinner," Das said, hinting that the home team may have misread the wicket and gone in with three quicks with their best spin option, left-arm spinner Vikas Mishra sitting out.
Prabhakar said that Kotla had actually played its part. "I don't want to blame anyone. We have to accept that the association also wants this track to be good, to give out the right message to the ICC. They are also watching. For my bowlers I just say, even if the wicket is not that good, it doesn't mean you can't bowl well. There is something called line and length." The extremely heavy and delayed Delhi monsoon, he believed, had affected preparation of the surface, making it impossible for the wicket to be rolled enough to both retain moisture and provide the hardness needed for adequate carry. What about leaving some grass instead? Err. Pass. "I don't want to blame the groundsmen," he said adding that his concern at the moment, was not so much what was happening on the surface but on the "fallen" body-language of his own team as a result.
Das tried to keep all of Delhi's negative thoughts alive. Before returning to his dressing room, he scattered a few seeds of doubt around and hoped that they would spring to life in the minds of their opponents. "It will get slower and lower and harder to score off as the match goes on". All very threatening, except the Kotla doesn't really pay attention to hope, expectatation or prediction. Most of the time, it has a mind of its own.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo