When play finished early on day three of the Railways v Saurashtra Ranji Trophy game, the devil it was established, was not residing in the Karnail Singh Stadium track that had consumed 40 wickets in just over two days and a bit. It was to be found in the home team, Railways, whose season "started and finished poorly, sandwiched with good cricket in between," according to their captain Sanjay Bangar.
When the race for the Ranji knockouts begins to get tighter, it is often alleged, the Karnail minefields begin to materialise and then, only the toss matters. Bangar, one of the more seasoned men in first-class cricket, rejected the stereotype constructed about his home ground. "The toss didn't really matter in this match, did it? It didn't make for a runaway game. We negated the advantage," he said. "We know the history of the wicket and that it begins to slow down as every day passes. Even after that [first-innings collapse] a target of 245 was gettable."
Saurashtra batsman Cheteshwar Pujara, who is working his way back into the national selectors' line of vision, did not criticise the conditions either. "It's a challenging wicket, a bowling paradise if you like. But it's not dangerous, it's not a minefield or anything like that. You have to be patient, apply yourself, wait for loose balls and punish them." Pujara was one of only four batsmen to cross 30 in the entire match.
On Wednesday, Saurashtra coach Debu Mitra had been reprimanded for letting rip in public about the surface where 18 wickets had fallen on the day. At the finish on day three, Mitra abstained from qualitative assessments about the pitch and said instead that his side had "played better [than the opposition], according to the [requirements] track."
The 97-run defeat to Saurashtra brought to a halt Railways' Ranji season, which had involved five of seven matches at home, at the Karnail Singh Stadium. Previously this year, the venue has witnessed totals of 483, 347, 521, 525 and 379. If there is any indication to be got from the totals of Railways v Sautrashtra's match - 175, 81, 152 and 149 - it is that matches here turn into quick on the draw shoot-outs of skill and temperament. "Speak to any of the players who have excelled here and they have all said it is difficult for stroke play," Bangar said. "It has a history of being very difficult to get runs here."
"On this track, you have to be there [at the crease] for some time to know what the wicket is all about which they [the batsmen] didn't do," said the somewhat placated Mitra. The time occupied by the Railways in their response to 175 was a mere 24.5 overs. With Ravindra Jadeja picking up 10 wickets wickets and the Man-of-the-Match award, Railways' felt the absence of their most experienced spinner, Murali Kartik, who pulled out of the game due to an injury.
The Karnail pitch, Railways loyalists say, often turns into a double-edged sword for the groundsman. Abhay Sharma, the Railways coach, said the tight three-day turnaround between Ranji matches and the Delhi winter had made it difficult for the surface to be watered correctly. "In this weather, a shirt won't dry in a day, how can a wicket be watered properly? If it is watered enough, it won't dry. If it's not watered, then it will crumble. It's not the groundsman's fault really."
Surfaces of the kind found at the Karnail, Bangar said, are easily tarred. "If there's grass and the ball swings five degrees then that's a good wicket, but if it's like this then it gets vicious turn. For some reason no one likes to think of a turning wicket with the same parameters as you do a wicket where the ball seams."