What's the big deal with the Nagpur pitch?
Charges of pitch doctoring, and rebuttals to those charges, are dominating the discussion on the eve of the first Border-Gavaskar Test
Surface tensions seem to erupt almost every time India host a major Test series - Nagpur 2015, Pune 2017 and Ahmedabad 2021 are three recent examples of matches that came to be defined by the pitches they were played on. There's a distinct chance, now, that Nagpur 2023 could join that list, with charges of pitch doctoring, and rebuttals to those charges, dominating discussions on traditional, electronic and social media on the eve of the first Border-Gavaskar Test, which begins on Thursday. If you're wondering why, you're in the right place.
What's the big deal with the Nagpur pitch?
There have always been turning pitches in India, and lately plenty that have turned sharply from day one. So what's different about this Nagpur pitch?
Well, for starters, it just looks unusual, with most of the pitch appearing reasonably well-watered, with a smattering of grass, and two sharply defined bare areas. At both ends of the pitch, these bare patches - probably created through a combination of selective watering, selective rolling, and selective mowing - occupy areas that roughly correspond to a spinner's good length, and a line outside the left-handers' off stump.
Balls landing on rougher, drier areas of a pitch usually have a greater chance of behaving inconsistently - whether by turning more or less than the batter might expect, or by bouncing higher or keeping low, or by either skidding through quicker or gripping the surface and slowing down considerably.
As the match progresses, meanwhile, these drier areas will experience plenty of wear and tear. Plenty of the bowling in Nagpur will be from right-arm bowlers delivering from over the wicket, and following through in the area that's outside the left-hander's off stump when the ends change.
Left-hand batters, in short, are likely to find life particularly difficult in Nagpur, especially in the second innings, and especially from left-arm orthodox spinners landing the ball in those rough patches outside their off stump.
Right-hand batters should face far less trouble from these bare patches, which are outside their leg stump.
So why are the bare patches where they are?
Australia's line-up on Thursday is expected to contain an unusual number of left-hand batters. If Matt Renshaw and Ashton Agar are picked, there could be up to six left-handers in their top eight.
India, meanwhile, are expected to have two left-arm orthodox spinners in their attack, in Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel.
On the flip side, India's line-up will be dominated by right-hand batters. Australia have one left-arm orthodox spinner in their squad, in Agar, but it's not yet clear if he'll play the game. Their senior spinner Nathan Lyon, who is expected to be their biggest threat on turning pitches, bowls offspin - he won't have any dry areas outside the right-handers' off stump to bowl into, at least at the start of the game.
And with Mitchell Starc out injured and with Jaydev Unadkat unlikely to feature, there probably won't be any fast bowler delivering from left-arm over to create a significant rough area outside the right-handers' off stump over the course of the game. There will, of course, be a fair amount of left-arm spin from over the wicket, and probably right-arm pace from around the wicket too.
India offspinner R Ashwin, meanwhile, will likely do a bulk of his bowling against Australia's left-handers. While the rough areas will be too far outside off stump for him to bowl there, he's a master of challenging both edges of the bat from a stump-to-stump area or just outside off stump. Of his 449 wickets in Test cricket, 226 are of left-hand batters, against whom he averages an outstanding 19.45. Since his debut, no other bowler has come close to that left-hander wicket tally - Lyon is a distant second with 167 at 24.11.
The pitch, then, seems to have been designed with the explicit aim of maximising India's home advantage.
What have the captains said about the pitch?
Australia captain Pat Cummins has maintained a diplomatic façade so far, refusing to get drawn into outright criticism of the pitch.
Cummins addressed two separate press conferences on Wednesday. In the first one, he was asked if he was miffed about the seeming influence the home team seems to have on Indian curators.
"Not really," Cummins said. "I think that's part of the challenge of playing away. Home teams want to win at home. In Australia we're lucky we've got pace and bounce. But home match advantage, I don't think it's a terrible thing. It's just another challenge and it makes touring over here even harder when you know that the conditions are custom-made for them."
In the second press conference, he was asked if the pitch was the most unusual one he'd seen, and whether he felt it was designed with Australia's team composition in mind.
"I think it looks a little bit dry for the left-handers and knowing how much traffic will probably go through there from the right-arm bowlers [from over the wicket]. Yeah, potentially might be a fair bit of rough out there. So, again, that's something you've just got to embrace. It's going to be fun. It's going to be challenging at times, but our batters relish the chance to problem-solve on their feet and I think quite a few of them will get that chance this week."
India captain Rohit Sharma, meanwhile, was asked to respond to a story in the Australian press that had referred to the pitch as "doctored". He sidestepped the question almost entirely.
"Speaking about the [talk of a] doctored wicket, I just feel that you've got to focus on the cricket that's going to be played for the next five days, and not worry too much about the pitch. The last series that we played here, a lot was spoken about the pitches and all that. I think all 22 cricketers who are going to play, they are all quality cricketers, so not to worry too much about what the pitch is going to be like, how much is it turning, how much is it seaming and all those kind of things. You've got to just come out and play good cricket and win the game, as simple as that."
Is this Nagpur pitch the first of its kind?
Selective watering, rolling and mowing has been a fairly regular feature of pitch preparation in India over recent years.
In 2013, the curator at the MA Chidambaram Stadium even mentioned selective watering when he detailed what went into a pitch he prepared for the first Test of that edition of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
"We started by making the entire pitch firm," he said. "After that we watered it selectively. The areas on either side of the stumps were kept dry, and so turned out to be loose. The line of the stumps was watered and rolled, so it stayed firm through the Test."
Nagpur 2023 is different because it seems to have been designed specifically to target Australia's left-hander-heavy line-up. It's rare for a team to have so many left-handers, so it's possible no team has had the opportunity to ask for a pitch like this before, assuming India did indeed request such a pitch.
Is it fair, though?
Every team looks to make the most of home advantage. Ashwin and Jadeja seldom get to play together when India travel away from Asia - pitches in England, South Africa and New Zealand have tended to be heavily grassed and tilted towards fast bowling on all of India's recent tours of those countries.
Indian Test pitches, meanwhile, have gained a reputation for heavily favouring their spinners in recent years, but India have also played a number of their home Tests on sporting pitches. Their fast bowlers, for instance, played as big a role as - and arguably a bigger role than - their spinners when they beat South Africa 3-0 in 2019-20.
More recently, though, India seem to have gone back to pitches that turn from day one. Part of this could be down to how well England capitalised on winning the toss in the first Test of their 2020-21 tour, on a Chennai pitch that started out flat before breaking up and becoming increasingly difficult to bat on from day two onwards. Possibly in an effort to minimise the role of the toss, the last three Tests of that series were played on pitches that started turning early.
That England series, moreover, came at a time when India needed to win by a 2-1 margin, at worst, to guarantee a spot in the 2021 World Test Championship final. Now, ahead of this Border-Gavaskar series, India need to win at least three Tests to guarantee their place in the 2023 WTC final.
It's possible, thus, that the pressure of WTC points could lead to a global increase in pitches that exaggerate home advantage. On the flip side, teams needing only draws to qualify could roll out the flattest decks in history.
Is any of this fair? Who knows, but it's the logical outcome of the competitive zeal that drives professional sport - no one would willingly cede an inch to their opponent.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo