For those unfamiliar with Indian cricket lexicon, the pitch on which the Pune Test is being played is called an akhada, a wrestling pit. The typical Indian wrestling pit is filled with clay and other dusty ingredients, while ghee - clarified butter - and limited amounts of water are used to level it. The obvious dust comparisons are behind the name, but that is where the comparisons end. The akhada is meant for pure and technical wrestling. These pitches are more akin to professional wrestling rings than a wrestling pit. Cheap shots, eye rakes, low blows, outside interference, they are all fair play. You can have the most beautiful submission holds but they won't guarantee wins. Watching the India spinners bowl in Pune, frequently going past the bat but not hitting the edge often enough, you wondered if they had taken amateur wrestling to a WWE ring.
All through the series against England, the India spinners bowled in a lovely rhythm, regularly showing their superiority on good pitches. However, the the rank turners, do two things: they place heavy premium on the toss, and bring a completely different bowling skill into play. Bowling on such pitches, especially when you lose the toss, is not easy. The pressure of expectation is immense with so much happening off the pitch; every run scored by the opposition is one to get in much worse conditions. And you need to actually turn the ball less on these pitches.
For a normal Indian pitch, the India spinners bowled in beautiful areas, short of the drive but not short enough for the batsmen to play off the back foot. In the first session of the Test, because of a combination of the pitch and Australia's left-hand openers, R Ashwin, No. 1 ranked bowler in the world, sent down 16 overs. He bowled 94 balls to left-hand batsmen in that session, beat the bat on 12 of those occasions, and beat it by a long way.
In the second innings, Ravindra Jadeja, No. 2 ranked bowler in the world, beat right-hand batsmen once every four balls, 22 out of 88 balls. On one such occasion, Steven Smith almost stood mocking the amount of turn after the ball pitched within the stumps and then missed his bat by six inches. Neither of those periods yielded India a wicket.
It looked wonderful to watch. They looked like great spells. "It was one of those days," India's coach Anil Kumble said. "Where we saw Jadeja bowled in the last session, where probably every over he was beating the bat three times. It was one of those days where on another day, that could have all taken the edge or got a wicket. It was one of those things where Steve O'Keefe pitched it; he got the results."
It is indeed incredible that Jadeja spun the ball so viciously, but didn't get wickets. Clearly the problem was too much turn on the pitch. Ashwin's response was to try to start turning it from further away. He went down the leg side often. In the first session on the opening day, 21 of the 22 runs he conceded came on the leg side, against the turn. Australia were prepared to be beaten on the outside edge, and made it a point to not follow balls turning away from them with their hands. There was one trick that India possibly missed: instead of turning it from batsmen further, try to give it less time to turn so much that it misses the edge.
To say that Jadeja was unlucky after beating the bat so often is a little like saying Ishant Sharma was unlucky when he used to bowl shorter than the ideal length. Experts believe that on such pitches you have to give up your superiority in classic spin. Instead of line you have to alter the length. Bowl fuller than what is a good length on good pitches, and have fielders at extra cover, short straight-extra cover and straight mid-off.
"You also need to be fuller," Murali Kartik wrote in Indian Express on how to bowl on such pitches. "You can afford to be two to three inches [feet] fuller than good length, because the batsman's already in a muddle about whether he has to defend his pad or risk playing a drive. Even an over-pitched delivery on a turning wicket can get you an outside edge."
The ball that O'Keefe bowled to take Ajinkya Rahane's edge was a perfect illustration. It pitched four metres from the stump, which is close to a half-volley on good surfaces. For majority of their spells when taking the ball away from the batsmen, Ashwin and Jadeja bowled the classic spinners' length: between five and six metres from the stump.
The pitch maps of Ashwin to left-hand batsmen in the first innings, O'Keefe to right-hand batsmen and Jadeja to right-hand batsmen in the second innings says a lot. Jadeja has predominantly bowled a traditional good length. Ashwin has got closer to four metres, but not often enough. O'Keefe kept persisting around that magic four-metre mark. Jadeja didn't take any outside edge. Ashwin took one wicket off the outside edge of a defensive shot in 214 balls bowled to left-hand batsmen. O'Keefe took four outside edges in 67 balls bowled to right-hand batsmen, two of them to defensive shots.
In the second innings, Ashwin has more yellows, denoting singles, on the pitch map than in the first, which means he bowled quicker to give batsmen less time to adjust, but the length still remained closer to the traditional good length. Australia kept playing inside the line, and the ball kept turning past the edge. During the lunch break on day two, Australia's spin consultant Sridharan Sriram took O'Keefe to the nets and got him to bowl fuller.
On pitches like this, luck, strategy and street smarts play a more significant role than traditional skill. While it is not clear whether India asked for such a pitch or whether the curator got it wrong in trying to ensure home advantage, India needed to be spot on strategically once Australia had the luck of winning the toss and getting to bat before manure hit the fan. It should hurt India that Australia did better on that front despite being the away side.