Disagreeing with Indian captain Virat Kohli's assessment that there was too much grass on the pitch in the first Test in Rajkot, Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) secretary Niranjan Shah has said it was a "perfect" strip.
"I was quite surprised to see that much grass on it, to be honest," Kohli had said after the Test, going on to make his displeasure clear. "Shouldn't have been the case." Kohli was responding to a question if the long England batting line-up had prompted him to play five bowlers. Kohli said it was the "surface as well" before talking about the grass.
The pitch offered turn beginning late on the third day, but the ball turned from the rough - not from the centre of the pitch, which makes spinners lethal. The Test ended in a draw, with India having to hang in on the final day after England scored 537 in the first innings. This was the first time India had conceded 300 in an innings since the start of the last season, which is when India began to play on tracks that turn from day one. England batsmen scored four centuries, the first by any team against India in India since early 2013.
Kohli said the ball did spin, but only in the last hour of each of the last three days. He said the first two days were good for batting while the rest of the time the spinners had to be accurate "to get some purchase". Kohli said, "Day three onwards it slowed down a little bit, but no demons as such."
Defending the pitch, Shah pointed to the interest generated by the Test, till deep into its final session. "It is a perfect Test wicket," Shah told ESPNcricinfo. "After a long time you can see a Test match completely for five days. I don't think the grass on that wicket prevented the ball from turning."
Generally, soil on Indian pitches is loose, and they start to crumble late on day three. Shah, a former first-class cricketer for Saurashtra - where he has served as an administrator for more than three decades - said this pitch did not "crumble" even though conditions remained dry throughout the five afternoons because it was "hard and stable".
India players spoke about the pitch during the Test too. When asked which of the three first-innings centurions took the game away from India, left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja had said it was the toss that took the game away from them. This was the first toss India had lost under Virat Kohli in India. Jadeja, who plays for Saurashtra in domestic cricket, said he didn't expect spinners to be as dominant on the remaining three days as spinners generally are in later stages in first-class matches in Rajkot. "After two days whatever foot marks are there on both ends, the ball can turn from there," Jadeja had said. "The middle of the wicket, though, has not changed at either end."
A BCCI official agreed with Jadeja about the toss, but said India have grown used to batting first and having their spinners performing well on a wearing pitch. The official pointed out, out of the last seven Test matches before Rajkot, India won all the tosses and went on to win the six matches they batted first in. The one time they decided to field, in Bangalore, the match was eventually washed out. The official said that although it was fair for Kohli to expect home advantage, SCA obviously wanted its debut Test to go the distance. "The wicket was under preparation much, much earlier," the official said. "It was hard like a stone, and had grass covering."
Moisture and grass on the first day is usually a norm in Test matches. Subsequently the grass wears off with every passing session. However, in Rajkot the grass cover remained even throughout the Test, surprising not just Kohli, but many others. In his pitch report on the second day, former Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar said the grass on the pitch was greener than on the first morning. "The grass kept on coming back every morning due to overnight rest. The official said, "Though the pitch was mowed, the grass cover still remained in the morning."
A local ground expert said that nothing could have been done to prevent the growth of the grass overnight. The reason, he pointed out, was the nature of the black cotton soil that forms the base of the pitch. "This black cotton soil in Rajkot has an in-built fertile nature," the expert said. "Rajkot is also close to the coast. There is sea breeze in the morning and evening. So the pitch does not need watering. If it gets the moisture the grass will grow back. Another reason is, when you cover the pitch overnight, the moisture makes the grass grows back once again due to the in-built fertile soil."
The expert said the groundsmen do understand that the home team should be offered a certain advantage, but it was difficult to do so in Rajkot. It is understood that the Indian team management did have an informal word with the SCA officials, just to understand the nature of the pitch. The team officials were told that the grass could not be cut lower than 2mm. "All the needs of the Indian team [historically] are exact," the expert said. "It is very, very difficult for a groundsman to fulfil those requests. But I think it was a good Test match."
Shah said grass has never affected the spinners here before. He also pointed out another reason for the draw: "You can't always blame the wicket. India dropped few catches early. Grass on the pitch was not that important for the turning of the ball. That is what I have known in Rajkot."
Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo