Motera pitch could be a backhanded compliment to England

India have come closest to achieving truly balanced pitches, but a loss in the first Test must have stung

Eight hundred and forty two balls. That's how long the Ahmedabad Test lasted. There have only ever been six shorter result Tests, and the most recent of them took place in January 1935.
Two of the other five Tests came during the 1888 Ashes series. Both involved George Lohmann, whom you probably recognise as the Bradman of bowling, the man with the best Test average of them all, a quite ludicrous 10.75. He achieved that while taking 112 wickets over 18 Tests, but his place at the top of the bowling-averages pile would be intact even if you relaxed the qualifying criteria to include all bowlers to have taken 20 Test wickets.
Now, nearly 125 years since Lohmann played his last Test, a challenger may finally be emerging. After two Test matches, Axar Patel has 18 wickets at 9.44. Nine. Point four four.
It takes skill and accuracy to do what Axar has done, but few spinners have shared his good fortune of starting their Test careers on surfaces like the ones he's bowled on so far in Chennai and Ahmedabad. If Chepauk gave spinners the gift of sharp turn and disconcerting bounce from day one of the second Test there, Motera presented them with skiddy pace and variable turn.
And the long-lasting gloss of the pink ball - which before the Test match had been touted as a factor that would bring fast bowlers into the game - exaggerated this skiddiness. Joe Root, who picked up a scarcely believable 5 for 8 with his part-time offspin in India's first innings, said after the match that batsmen on both sides were beaten for pace rather than turn with the ball skidding on as quickly as it did.
And while the bulk of the spinners' wickets came from balls that went on straight, those balls became so dangerous because there were others, ever so often, that turned viciously. Mostly this happened as a result of natural variation off the pitch - which Axar and R Ashwin accentuated by bowling a lot of undercutters, deliberately looking to land the ball on the leather rather than the seam - rather than the bowlers delivering variations out of the hand.
Batting, in short, was treacherous. And while there had been sharper turn in Chennai, there was also more bounce. This had brought the close catchers into play, but it had mitigated the risk of bowled and lbw to an extent, and allowed batsmen to go back in their crease to cut or pull when the ball was marginally short. In Ahmedabad, the good length for spinners was a wider band because the ball was skidding on so much, and going on the back foot was always fraught with risk. Of the 28 wickets the spinners took in Ahmedabad, 20 were either bowled or lbw.
For all this, Virat Kohli said it had been a "very good pitch to bat on", and that the batsmen, from both teams, had only themselves to blame for their misfortunes. Rohit Sharma echoed his captain's thoughts in his post-match press conference.
"The pitch didn't do anything," he said. "If I can recollect, most of the batters got out to the straighter delivery. We also as a batting unit made a lot of mistakes while batting, it's not just them (England). We also didn't bat well in the first innings. Pitch had nothing as such, no such demons as we call [it], there was nothing like that. It was a nice pitch to bat on. Once you're in, you can score runs as well, as we saw, but again, you just need to apply [yourself] and keep concentrating."
Now there are two reasons for India to believe this, or to say they believe this. The obvious one is that home teams very rarely criticise their own pitches, especially when they've won. Why would you give anyone a reason to take the gloss off your own performance?
But equally, think back to Kohli and Rohit's first-innings dismissals to Jack Leach. Kohli was bowled trying to cut the left-arm spinner, and Rohit was lbw trying to sweep from the line of the stumps. Ajinkya Rahane was dismissed in similar manner to Kohli, so that's a total of three experienced top-order batsmen playing unwise shots on a pitch where the most dangerous ball was the one that skidded on straight.
It's quite possible, therefore, that both Kohli and Rohit were alluding to their own dismissals when they assessed the pitch. Top-drawer Test batsmen tend to get annoyed with themselves when they get out making what they consider poor choices. "We just made mistakes from our side," Rohit said. "[It was about understanding] which shots we need to play, which ball was coming in [with the angle], whether to play the cut shot or not, whether to go over the top or not, whether to sweep or not."
But that said, it's hard to buy that argument wholesale. Together, the pink ball and the pitch combined to make it extremely challenging for any batsman to survive against, and score runs off, any spinner who could land the ball on a good length, attack the stumps, and do both consistently.
That's part of the challenge of Test cricket, of course. And it made for gripping viewing.
And there was nothing obviously wrong with the pitch by other measures too, most notably when it came to bounce, which is one of the most important criteria in the ICC's grading system for pitches. Of the three pitches in this series, this one probably offered the most even (or least uneven) bounce - the ball frequently kept low towards the end of the first Test, and it often spat up unexpectedly when the spinners bowled in the second. This wasn't really a two-paced pitch either, the kind where the odd ball stops on the surface. It was, more than anything, an unusual surface that offered uneven turn. And it may have seemed an entirely different sort of pitch had this Test match been played with a red ball; we'll never know.
But regardless of how it turned out, there's little doubt that it was prepared with a few specific aims in mind: to make sure the spinners came into it as much as possible, and that the fast bowlers - usually so potent in day-night Tests - wouldn't have a whole lot to work with.
Even before the Test match began, the pitch had the classic look of one that had been selectively watered. Have a look for yourself:
It's not against the rules to prepare a pitch in this manner, of course, and pitches in every part of the world are designed to favour the home team. It makes the sport more varied, and more interesting.
And you could even argue that this pitch - or the one on which the second Test was played - actually offered India less home advantage because it brought spinners from both teams into play rather than rewarding just the ones with the most skill. Root, as mentioned earlier, took 5 for 8, and his flurry of wickets put England in a position from where they may well have gone on and won.
So it wasn't a dangerous pitch, and it didn't unduly favour the home team, but was it, in a wider, philosophical sense, a good Test-match pitch? Forget the platonic ideal of the pitch that seams on day one, flattens out on days two and three, and starts to turn halfway into day four; that sort of pitch is almost impossible to achieve in the real world, where seaming pitches very rarely bring spinners into play in a meaningful way even on day five.
But there's something to be said for the idea of striving for pitches - whether they tilt towards seam or spin - that demand hard work from both batsman and bowler, and reward it too. It's a difficult balance to achieve, and pursuing it isn't often in the interests of the various stakeholders involved in the process. Thanks to their unprecedented fast-bowling riches, India have actually prepared quite a number of pitches over the last few years that have come close to achieving this balance, offering something to batsmen and every kind of bowler. Having lost the first Test of this series, you could say India have offered a backhanded compliment to England by veering away so sharply from that template.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo