During the home seasons over the past few years, Indian fans have celebrated dominant series wins, Rohit Sharma's double-centuries, the rise of India's new-look pace attack and the birth of a promising allrounder in Hardik Pandya, among other things. Even though India's fortunes have hardly changed in ODIs, barring the loss to South Africa in 2015, one factor that has largely gone unnoticed is the change in the nature of the pitches.
While players mostly use words such as "slow wicket" and "two-paced" to describe the tracks in interviews or press conferences, scorecards and performances show there has been a definite change in the nature of pitches that curators have prepared over the last couple of seasons.
In 2013 and 2014, Indian fans would scream their lungs out as teams scored 300 with ease and India often chased that down without much trouble. When India hosted Australia in late 2013 for seven ODIs, the lowest first-innings total in the series was 295 even as scores of 359, 303 and 350 were chased successfully, which clearly showed teams - especially hosts India - preferred to bat second on such flat pitches. Just consider the run rate the Indian pitches produced in the two years leading up to the 2015 World Cup: 6.05. From February 2013 to February 2015, India topped the list when it came to average run rates for ODIs at home, the only country to have the figure above six per over.
However, since the 2015 World Cup, India have dropped to fourth - excluding Pakistan as a venue, as the country has hosted only three ODIs in that time - with an average run rate of 5.73 behind Australia (6), England (5.98) and South Africa (5.95). While it not only means lower scores have been posted in the last two and a half years in India, it has also shown that totals around 250 have been defendable, like against New Zealand last year and versus Australia recently. The reasons for that are not restricted to pitches though.
Earlier, teams winning the toss would often opt to bowl to avoid bowling with the dew later on. That factor has changed, however, as the start times of ODIs have been brought forward from 2.30pm to 1.30pm local time since November 2014, when India hosted Sri Lanka for five ODIs.
Also, unlike England, South Africa and Australia, India has a varied array of conditions because of wide-ranging venues across the country and the dynamic factors of soil and regional weather conditions. Even as the other three countries play on more standardised and flatter pitches which last the full 100 overs more frequently, the average scoring-rate per match has reduced in India because of the lack of uniformity in conditions even within an ODI series.
The dew, for example, does not show up in all cities across the year, which means bowling second is not as big a risk. While the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi has remained slow and low, a relaid pitch at Eden Gardens is prominently greener now and the ones in Mumbai and Bengaluru almost always promise a big score.
As a result, teams have started batting first on winning the toss - like during the recent Australia series - as chasing 320 is not the norm anymore and pitches are now being prepared to assist slower bowlers more.
These changing results may not be just an act of chance or fate, though. India suffered losses in the knockouts of the last three world events - the 2015 World Cup semi-final, the 2016 World T20 semi-final, and the 2017 Champions Trophy final - on flatter pitches, so they probably wanted to change things at home at least; flat tracks meant India could post big scores, if batting first, but could not always defend them because of a weak bowling attack and its inability to curtail other batting line-ups. It may not be an accident that India have moved away from batsmen-friendly pitches in recent times.
"The last few series we played [at home], it was challenging wickets, slow wickets that were turning and some of the wickets we played were little damp, where it was stopping and coming - two-paced wickets," Rohit Sharma said on Friday. "If the wicket has something in it for the bowlers, there comes the challenge for the batsmen."
A statement like this would have been unimaginable from a batsman who scored two double-centuries within a span of a year from 2013 to 2014, when thick bats and shorter boundaries were ruling the roost. But the change in trend has meant his new team-mates - Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel and Yuzvendra Chahal - get more purchase from the pitches as India have started to defend totals under 300 more consistently.
The result is a much more even contest between bat and ball as was seen during the ODIs against New Zealand a year ago when the visitors successfully defended totals of 242 and 260 in Delhi and Ranchi respectively. For a change, it gave a bilateral series a scoreline of 2-2, adding interest not only within the matches but to the fifth ODI as well. Such variety of pitches and results has produced some of the more entertaining and balanced ODIs in recent times, and with the proposed ODI league still three years away, this may not be a bad trend for the format at all.