So was the pitch challenging? Definitely. Was it a two-day pitch? Perhaps not.
One must bear in mind that dew made batting a lot easier in the sessions under lights. The ball got really wet and that made it significantly harder for both fast and slow bowlers. It's almost a travesty that the four "day" sessions were enough for the majority of wickets to fall, deciding the outcome of the game.
There were more than a few dismissals that had only to do with the batsman's response on a challenging surface and not so much with the surface itself. Zak Crawley
in the second innings, Jonny Bairstow in both innings, Ben Stokes in both innings, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Washington Sundar and Axar Patel
in the first innings, to mention a few.
What was it about the surface that led to so many errors of judgement, given we are talking about a lot of quality Test players here? In my opinion, there were three factors that were responsible for the batting display.
Firstly, the red-soil surface for the third Test was a lot faster than the black-clay pitch for the second Test
. Though there was a lot of turn on offer in Chennai, the ball came on reasonably slowly after pitching, and that allowed the batsmen to devise a strategy. Of course, scoring in Chennai also required a bit of bravado and a slice of luck, but a good few batsmen showed that it could be done. On the contrary, the pace in Ahmedabad was a lot greater and that gave the batsmen very little time to adjust after the ball had pitched.
Second: the faster surface was accentuated by the extra coating of lacquer on the pink ball, which skidded off the pitch a lot more than the red ball would have, which further reduced the time to adjust or react after pitching.
Thirdly, whether it's spin or seam, consistency of lateral movement off the surface is key to batting success. In Chennai, everything spun but in Ahmedabad only a few balls did
. When that happens, you're in two minds as to which line you should play for. The occasional but significant spin in Ahmedabad forced batsmen to play for the spin - that is, to play down the wrong line for deliveries that came on straight. That explains the large number of dismissals to the straight ball. It's not that these fine players had forgotten the art of batting and couldn't keep the straight balls out. The viciously turning balls prior to those straight, wicket-taking balls sowed seeds of doubt.
Having played the second Test on a turner will have corrupted the batsmen's judgement somewhat too. Once the batsmen saw puffs of dust and a couple of balls turning square, the collective assumption was that this pitch was also as much of a turner as the last one.
So how does one bat on a surface like this? Is survival really down to the luck one enjoys on the day? And is there a way to score runs too? Crawley and Rohit Sharma showed that it was possible.
The trick to playing someone like Patel on that surface with the pink ball is to treat every ball as a slider, which comes on with the arm. The first aim should be to keep the ball from hitting the front pad, for in the DRS era you can never be too careful about protecting the front leg. But you must still plant the front foot in line with the ball and not inside it, for going too far leg side will make you vulnerable if the ball spins. And while defending, it's vital to keep the bat in front of the pad and not beside it - which Joe Root was guilty of a couple of times in the second innings. Of course there's the turning ball that might take the outside edge, but so be it; you can't possibly defend both pad and edge on a surface like this.
Patel's pace made him the most difficult bowler to negotiate, for there was hardly a foolproof way of scoring runs against him. R Ashwin
's variations, on the other hand, were both subtle and less alarming. He didn't increase his pace manifold but used the angles beautifully. Jack Leach
, like Patel, enjoyed the inconsistency in turn, but unfortunately for England, he wasn't as fast or accurate as his Indian counterpart.
And that's the other thing about spin bowling: you can only increase the pace so much, and when you go beyond that optimum, you start undercutting the ball and lose accuracy. Leach's slowness gave some room for the batsmen to score: you could use your feet to smother the spin, sweep, and when it was a little short, you could use the depth of the crease. These were things you couldn't do against Patel.
Most challenging surfaces force the batsman's hand a bit, for there's always a ball that has your name on it. It might be your first ball, your tenth or your 50th. On these pitches, an overly defensive approach is untenable. One must take some amount of risk on a regular basis, provided you pick the right ball and stroke and also have some mastery over that shot. A proper sweep was a good shot in Chennai but fraught with danger in Ahmedabad. Use of the feet is important, playing shots is critical, but when and how holds the key to succeeding. All said, it's indeed easier said than done. And it can't be done without a huge dollop of luck.