Is it time for neutral pitch curators for Tests?

In the third Test match between India and England that got over on Thursday, among the people who were not critical of the Ahmedabad wicket was former India captain Sunil Gavaskar. He said tackling spin requires the use of feet, to advance down the track and to be prepared to go back when necessary.

The five-day match that India won by 10 wickets was the shortest completed Test since 1935, with only six other Tests in history being shorter. It got over in less than two days, with only 842 deliveries needed, leaving eager fans trickling into stadiums after last year’s long break disappointed.

A majority of the wickets fell to balls that went straight through, indicating that the batsmen misread both the line and length of the deliveries while playing for spin that never came. Fourteen of the 20 England batsmen were out bowled or caught lbw, with the lacquered pink ball skidding through after pitching.
If there is any indication of how poorly even the Indian batsmen fared — despite the win and overall sense of greater competence — it comes from Joe Root’s bowling figures in the first innings — five wickets for eight runs. Root’s previous best in 102 Tests was 4-87 against South Africa last January — the part-time bowler had never taken more than two wickets in an innings prior to that.

Gavaskar’s opinion, seen in context of his last Test innings, explains his reasoning. Against Pakistan in Bengaluru in 1987, on a wicket that turned square, played low and was as unpredictable as the novel coronavirus, Gavaskar batted with finesse for his 96, even as India fell short in a run chase by 16 runs.

India captain Virat Kohli, having won the Ahmedabad Test and being the host, was not critical of the Motera wicket, while Root maintained that they thought the wicket would “hold better than it did”. Rohit Sharma, who top scored in the first innings with 66 and was unbeaten on 25 in the second innings, said “the pitch did nothing. Batsmen did not apply the technique. Pitch was fine, seemed normal to me. (It was a) Typical Indian wicket.”

While cricketers and commentators are unlikely to speak against the powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India, critics of the pitch silently point to India’s desire to be the No. 1 in the sport and therefore influence situations in which the team would prevail, especially at home. Former India player Yuvraj Singh Tweeted: “finished in 2 days Not sure if that’s good for Test cricket”. A pitch curator in Mumbai called the wicket a “
kabaddi ka akhada”.

The pitch debate is a repetitive one, especially when margins of victories are large. In Adelaide in December, India was bowled out for 36 as Australia won the match by eight wickets. On a turner in Chennai just over a week ago, an arguably poorer wicket compared to Ahmedabad, India beat England by 317 runs with Indian spinners taking 17 wickets.

Other instances point to differences in teams that are accentuated by the conditions they play in. In the 2011 series in Australia, the hosts beat India 4-0, with the victory margins being 122 runs, an innings and 68 runs, an innings and 37 runs and 298 runs. Two years later, India returned the favour at home, winning 4-0 — by eight wickets, an innings and 135 runs, six wickets and six wickets.

After India beat South Africa by 63 runs in a low-scoring match in Johannesburg in 2018, former India captain and then chief of selectors DilipVengsarkar
called for the International Cricket Council to choose neutral curators. He said if people have to watch cricket, the wicket should have enough for batsmen, seamers and spinners.

The same pitch curator said the wicket at the newly-named Narendra Modi Stadium was “100% not suitable Test match wicket”. He added that Test cricket’s beauty lies in an even contest, of centuries scored, standing ovations, bowling skills and that neutral curators, like neutral umpires, could be a way forward. The BCCI had introduced neutral curators in domestic Ranji Trophy matches some years ago in order to curtail “designer pitches”.

But critics of outsourcing say only local curators would be familiar with the soil condition, topography and the influence of climate.

The Ahmedabad Test though, not only opens up the debate about pitches, but also batsmanship. The collapses on Wednesday and Thursday only reinforces the notion that the world’s best batsmen can excel only in conditions suitable to batting.

Historically, batsmen played on uncovered wickets that were subject to the vagaries of weather, including overnight rain that would leave the pitches wet. The local Kanga League in Mumbai, played during the monsoon, has contributed to sharpening batsmen’s techniques, of being able to bat on unpredictable pitches.

Several fears over the years, about T20 cricket destroying well-established batting techniques in favour of quick runs, have proven partly accurate. Even practice pitches are perfect these days, complained the curator, that do not challenge the batsmen.

Many sports disciplines have a home and away or a surface advantage. In football, teams score more points for victories “away” than at “home” because it’s considered more difficult. Rafael Nadal is almost unbeatable on clay and certainly unassailable in Roland Garros because the red clay fits snugly into his playing style. In hockey, India lost its world dominance sometime in the 1980s when artificial surfaces blunted their skills on natural grass and asked for a different playing style.

The beauty, slight fickle nature of cricket comes from the pitches. If batsmen could not play in all conditions, seaming and spinning, and bowlers did not learn to exploit the conditions available to them, the nature of the sport would become more robotic. Already, certain umpiring decisions are referred to a television replay, killing the sense of a “what-if”. If the pitches were made uniform—or the same everywhere—there would be no mysteries left.

Whether it’s challenging pitches, conditions or playing skills, a Test that ends in less than two days does the sport no favours, especially when cricket is desperately trying to hang on to the traditional format of five days in whites.

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