News Analysis

Intrigue around 'dry' Mohali pitch

Historically, the Mohali pitch has had a reputation for good true bounce but the focus, ahead of the first Test between India and South Africa, is on the seemingly dry appearance of the track

"Three days - three or four days out from the first day - it looks dry than a pitch normally looks. That's all I can say. We are expecting [preparing] for the worst. We are expecting big spin on day one, and if we come to day one and it does that, it's not a matter of, 'Oh it's spinning, what do we do now?'"
- Faf du Plessis on the Mohali pitch
"It's going to be a sporting wicket. It will have the freshness on day one, will be good for batting the next two days, and then break up on the last two. Why should it turn from day one?"
- MP Pandove, secretary of Punjab Cricket Association
The intrigue surrounding a pitch just before the start of a Test series is one of the things to behold in our storied sport. Perhaps in no other ball game does the surface where the ball bounces vary as much as it does in cricket. In tennis, for example, you go from grass to clay to hard courts, but the Paris clay behaves somewhat similarly every year. You can look and tell. Cricket pitches can have minds of their own despite best efforts.
Everybody who is allowed near the pitch looks at it eagerly. On Monday afternoon, around 3pm, three Indian players and India's three assistant coaches came to the PCA Stadium in Mohali for an optional training session. Daljit Singh, the chief groundsman, got a call immediately that they had arrived. So he took an assistant with him and walked towards the pitch. The first thing Virat Kohli and the coaches - Sanjay Bangar, B Arun and R Sridhar - did was walk to Daljit and the pitch. Oh the suspense around the pitch.
Like a good Punjabi boy, the first thing Kohli did upon reaching the square was touch Daljit's feet. Daljit patted the youngster's back. Intense discussion around the pitch followed for about 10 minutes in which Kohli spoke little. Arun, the bowling coach, seemed to do most of the talking. Bangar shadow-practised at the top of the pitch, and looked intently at a good-length area. Before the Indians arrived, Daljit had asked his groundsmen to make brushes by intertwining a coir rope. Four of the groundsmen then began to scrub the surface with those brushes. To bring some sheen without shaving off the grass, a groundsman said.
Most of the curators guard their pitch zealously. Daljit did too. On Monday you could have a conversation with him about any old thing but the pitch for this Test match. The pitches are so in focus because towards the end of his Test captaincy, MS Dhoni finally managed to convince Indian groundsmen to prepare pitches that began turning from day one. More intrigue is added by the controversy around the pitch in the last match that India played. Sudhir Naik, the head groundsman at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, complained to his state association that he and an assistant were abused by India team director Ravi Shastri and Arun, because they didn't like the surface on which South Africa batsman amassed 438 in 50 overs. Dhoni's parting shot after the ODIs was a call for surfaces similar to the ones on which India beat Australia 4-0 in 2012-13.
The pitches are so in focus because towards the end of his Test captaincy, MS Dhoni finally managed to convince Indian groundsmen to prepare pitches that began turning from day one
There is every reason for South Africa to not trust the surface even though it looks green. The grass will obviously be taken off closer to the Test. Du Plessis says the pitch is unnaturally dry for a surface three days before the start of a Test. He says it would be a concern for them if they were not expecting it. He has followed with some amusement the whole saga of the Mumbai pitch.
"I don't think they would be complaining about the wickets if they were winning," du Plessis said. "I think it's a reason to perhaps shift their attention from losing. For me one-day cricket is about runs. You don't pitch up to a game expecting 180 plays 190. One-day cricket is about entertaining the crowd. That last ODI game in Mumbai was great for the fans.
"I do think they are perhaps putting a little bit of pressure on the groundsmen to give them the wickets that they want because they know the slower the wickets the more they are in the game. But we are expecting that - and we did expect it in the one-dayers - and if on the day it changes then you have to just adapt your game plan to it. The way the wicket is looking at the moment perhaps that [India's complaining] has worked."
Historically Mohali has had a reputation for good true bounce, but this is now a 23-year-old square when it is advisable to relay squares about every 12 years. Spinners have won India Tests recently. The quicks have become effective mostly with the reversing ball. Yet it has never offered alarming turn to the spinners.
From a distance the pitch doesn't look alarming: an even covering of yellowish grass. How much of it will be retained depends on the weather over the next couple of days and perhaps more such discussions between Daljit and the Indian think-tank. From a distance, though, you can't tell how dry or hard it is. It must be said, though, that it is no longer hot in north India, which means it won't lose too much moisture in the coming days.
Three days to go, either South Africa are being alarmist or the PCA doesn't want to make a song and dance about a turning pitch tailormade for the hosts. This is not the end of conversations around the surface.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo