“Woh log (Australians) kehte hain ki ek Australia-wala wicket hain, doosra England-wala aur teesra Pune-waala. (The Australians say one strip is Australian in nature, second England, and third Pune). Ye toh Ranchi-wala wicket hai. If I can simulate all those conditions in one square here, I should be a genius,” says the Ranchi curator SB Singh about the three pitches he has laid out for the third Test. “They’re saying we have prepared a wicket for every condition”.
Like a sleuth at a crime site, Australia coach Darren Lehmann roved all around the meshed tarpaulin that cordoned off the centre square, probing it from as many angles as he could. Trailing him like understudies were Nathan Lyon and Steve Smith. Soon, like curious passers-by, the entire Australian squad came and peeked in. Staring back at them were three different strips of three different shades. Even as the rest retreated to the nets, Lehmann lingered on, and the more he gaped, the more confounded he appeared. For in front of his eyes was a puzzle within a puzzle: Which of these three would be used for the match, and how would that wicket will behave?
The one in the centre looked arid — so arid that even the pelting sun wouldn’t give it a shine — with a noticeably black, burnt smear in the middle. The one on its left was lusher with a more generous coating of grass, while the third was a blend of both — a smattering of dry grass and black blemishes. Even before his first sighting of the strip, Lehmann must have read and heard plenty of pitch rumours. Such as, how Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli would be accorded the liberty of picking a surface that suits them best and nullifies the threat of Australians.
But what, then, is a Ranchi-wala wicket? Since it’s the first Test at this venue, you can’t glean out patterns on pitch behaviour over the next five days. And you can’t deduce characteristics from the few international limited-over matches here either, for they are made to be as batting-friendly as possible.
Before we delve deeper into the inherent nature of Ranchi-wala wickets, Singh clarifies the logic in dishing out three separate wickets. Two of them are what he calls, “stepney” wickets, or in less colloquial plain-speak spare wickets. “I have seen a lot of matches getting abandoned due to under-cooked (or even overdone) pitches. I was there when (in 2009) the India-Sri Lanka match (ODI) was called off in Kotla due to poor pitch. I don’t want this to happen here. This is the first Test match here and it’s a matter of our prestige. So this is just a precaution, to mitigate the affects of any adversity,” says Singh. Laws allow for a pitch to be changed in two hours if the initial surface is deemed unsuitable.
Then, he almost lands on another verbal landmine. “Two days before the match, the team will choose the wicket,” he rattles out. Whether it was a clumsy slip of the tongue, or he was speaking the truth, Singh promptly issues a clarification and defuses the explosiveness of his own words, “I mean the ICC team, and not the Indian team. Of course, you must have realised.”
Prone as he is to such slips — or maybe he’s innocently careless — it’s not hard to fathom how he landed up in the pitch storm, in fact twice — first when he causally remarked former skipper MS Dhoni has chipped in with valuable inputs, and then when he casually said he has prepared three strips for this Test. “Whenever, Dhoni’s in Ranchi, he comes to play snooker and work out at the gym. So if you spot him here before a Test match, you theorise he’s doctoring pitches,” he says with sarcasm.
Then he contradicts his words again. “Right since the inception of the strip, Dhoni has always chipped in with advice regarding the pitch. He has a sixth sense when it comes to reading pitches, and every time he comes here we discuss at least six hours about the pitch behaviour,” says Singh, who has even recorded some of the interviews for his PhD purposes — he is pursuing a doctorate on pitch science.
Back to the dark, sombre-looking strips, he says the colour of it owes to the general nature of the soil. As in most other parts of North India, it’s black soil with a huge amount of clay content (almost 70 per cent). Such strips have a reputation to be be low and slow, with a tendency to crumble as it progresses, like a typical Kanpur wicket, and unlike the fast-breaking, powdery Wankhede-Pune types. He is non-committal about the slow-low aspect. “But the pitch won’t crumble, for it has a high volume of the mineral kaolinite, which binds the underneath surface together,” he points out.
There could be cracks, but cracks that won’t crumble, he assures. And he throws in an analogy that stupefies you, “like at the WACA.” If Lehmann had heard this, he would have felt reassured or perhaps, bemused.