India

Should we stop making cricket pitches that favour the home team?

South African batsman Faf du Plessis looks back at his shattered stumps as he is bowled out by Indian spinner Amit Mishra, on the third day of the third cricket test match between the two countries in Nagpur, India, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015 Image copyright AP
Image caption 'The South Africans have had to deal with difficult pitches, not impossible ones'

Three years ago, an 83-year-old man called the then Indian cricket captain "immoral".

Prabir Mukherjee was the curator at Eden Gardens, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). India were playing England and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni had suggested a spinning track be prepared for the Test match.

Pitch preparation is not an exact science; in the past, "spinning" tracks have been prepared where the seamers have run through the Indian batting, while "flat" tracks have been prepared where the fast bowlers have wreaked havoc.

The Indian curator's favourite technique for a spinning track is to leave it underprepared.

Spin has been India's strength for so long that it is a cliche now.

Yet visiting spinners have often been more successful than India's best - from Richie Benaud and Ashley Mallett to Lance Gibbs and Derek Underwood, and more recently, Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann.

Ethical?

It is neither illegal nor unethical to prepare a wicket to suit the home team's bowlers. It would be foolish to do otherwise.

If Jim Laker could claim 19 wickets on a dry Old Trafford wicket nearly half a century ago, part of the credit should go to his captain Peter May, who persuaded the groundsman into not watering the pitch in advance. Was that unethical? Or illegal?

The illegal and the unethical co-exist in sport. On the cricket field, it is illegal to overstep when bowling - umpires call a 'no ball' immediately - but it isn't unethical.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption 'It is neither illegal nor unethical to prepare a wicket to suit the home team's bowlers'
Image copyright AP
Image caption 'Spin has been India's strength for so long that it is a cliché now'
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Indian curator's favourite technique for a spinning track is to leave it underprepared

It is unethical to claim a catch when you know that the ball has hit the ground, but it isn't illegal.

No-one minds a three-day Test as long as the battle between bat and ball is fascinating.

The curator is subject to a set of opposing demands. A quick win for the home side versus a full five-day match which is what television demands. The latter are often boring run feasts. The toss can ruin the best-laid plans of curators.

Had South Africa made in the first innings the same score they did in the second, Nagpur might have had a different story to tell in the ongoing series against India. South Africa made more in the fourth innings than India did in the third.

'Lack of technique'

The tracks at Mohali and Nagpur for the current series have not been minefields or square turners.

True, they aided spin early, but they were the allies of batsman willing to stay and play. That 40 was the highest score in four innings at Nagpur was not so much an indictment of the pitch as of the batsmen's technique.

No-one expects tracks in seamer-friendly England to be like the pace-friendly ones in Australia or South Africa. Cricket's - in fact, any sport's - charm lies in the variety and range of its settings. Conditions change, challenges differ. Overcoming the opposition by conquering the conditions is the essence of the game.

Uniformity - of pitches, grounds, weather - is neither possible nor desirable.

The South Africans have had to deal with difficult pitches, not impossible ones.

Batting techniques have been tested, and not just those of the visitors. Indians, who presumably ought to be happier in home conditions have displayed the same lack of technique. The shorter formats have formalised the habit of hitting your way out of trouble. Test cricket demands greater discipline and more respect for the essentials of batsmanship.

When Indian leg-spinner Narendra Hirwani claimed 16 wickets in his debut Test in Chennai, the visiting captain, Viv Richards of the West Indies told the Indian team: "Come home, we'll show you," he said.

The message holds good in all sport: home rules apply.

Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack

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