Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo
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Delhi Daredevils may not have been the subject of much conversation during the Champions League, thanks to their lacklustre performance, but the pitch at their home ground, the Feroz Shah Kotla, seems to have made up for it - and not in a nice way. With its low, uneven and unpredictable bounce and slow nature, the freshly laid Delhi wicket has been a talking point - and the subject of often harsh criticism from cricketers - from the first game it hosted where, ironically, Delhi failed to reach even three figures against Victoria.
The statistics are damning: Delhi has recorded the fewest sixes of the three venues, a little more than half those hit in Hyderabad; four scores below 100, one of which was the tournament's lowest total; and 40 % of all wickets falling in the "bowled" column, testifying to the difficulty in predicting the bounce.
More damning, though, are the words of Gambhir, Delhi's new captain and form batsman. His criticism began after the loss to Victoria, a match in which his middle stump was sent cart-wheeling by a shooter from Shane Harwood. "I don't know how bad a wicket it is, but it is not an ideal wicket for a Twenty20 game because you just don't have a chance to come back," he said then. Asked on Tuesday whether his opinion had changed through the tournament, one in which he and fellow big-hitters Virender Sehwag and Tillakaratne Dilshan were largely kept quiet, his reply was an emphatic, stinging no.
"It did affect [Delhi] because as batsmen you want to go out in a Twenty20 game and play your shots without any sort of doubts in your mind. You want to hit fours and sixes but that was not possible," Gambhir told Cricinfo. He said he would have loved to play on the sporting track at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium in Hyderabad. "Hyderabad has the best pitch but we never got an opportunity to play there," Gambhir said.
His views were echoed by Andrew Puttick, the Cobras captain, after his side was bowled out for 84 at the Kotla in the last game of the league stage on Monday, a defeat that allowed his team to play their semi-final in Hyderabad instead of Delhi. "These kinds of wickets will not make for a great spectacle because Twenty20 is all about fours and sixes. So I am pretty happy I'm playing in Hyderabad."
Not everyone supported Gambhir's view on the pitch though. Former Indian batsman, and now TV commentator, Sanjay Manjrekar said the Kotla pitch may not have been suited for the Twenty20 format but it wasn't "sub-standard" either. "It makes the games more closely fought and that can only be good for cricket as there is good contest between bat and ball," Manjrekar said.
So why is the pitch so dodgy? After the IPL was moved to South Africa, the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) decided to overhaul the entire ground, and put in a fresh square in the middle. Daljit Singh, head of BCCI's ground and pitch committee, who overlooked the relaying of the Kotla pitch, said it was a "bold" but positive move on DDCA's part, as they were looking forward to a good pitch for the 2011 World Cup. Daljit admitted that even if it was not yet a finished product, the Kotla track was able to promote tight contests. "It is a two-month old wicket, it will take time to settle. It is not an ideal Twenty20 pitch," Daljit said. It was the first in India, he said with some pride, to have drainage around the square.
Daljit said players like New South Wales captain Simon Katich and Mahela Jayawardene of Wayamba had told him they enjoyed playing on the "challenging" Delhi pitch and had no major qualms. He added that the material used in preparing the new pitch was very good, as "not a single ball has taken any mud out with it which, for a new wicket, is fantastic. The wicket has not subsided anywhere."
Still, not everyone agreed with DDCA's timing of relaying the pitch. "The structure, format and the tournament is such that you want high scores, batsmen to succeed and the pitch should support them," Amrit Mathur, the Delhi Daredevils' chief operation officer, said. "You are depriving fans and supporters of the kind of cricket they expect to witness. To that extent the wicket could've been better."
Mathur's concern was that the batsmen had to place a premium on safety, something not good for the Twenty20 brand of cricket. However, the two Australian sides that clash in the semi-final in Delhi have not been losing any sleep over the tricky nature of the Kotla pitch. "It is not an ideal T20 pitch, but you need to adapt," Katich said. Stuart Clark, the NSW fast bowler, backed his captain. "The wicket is a bit slow and low and you might not get a total like 170-180. You have to adapt to the conditions and the wicket and try and execute your skills to the best of your ability."