Cricketers or their girlfriends, coaches or officials – of late, in the build-up to a Test match in India, no one fires sports journalists’ imagination as much as a slender figure in a brim hat. “Is he in town,” they discuss. “What will he do this time,” they debate. On a lazy Thursday afternoon at the HPCA Stadium in Dharamshala, not even the presence of the Dalai Lama himself would have stirred such excitement in the press box as the sight of Daljit Singh, with the local curator Sunil Chauhan in tow, walking out towards the pitch did.
Ever since the action has shifted from Ranchi to Dharamshala, Chauhan has been claiming that the wicket would assist the fast bowlers, as it usually does here in first class matches, while also adding that the spinners would come into the picture on the last two days. The strip, as it basked in the balmy sun on Thursday, looked bleached, with barely any grass on it.
It was more like an ODI/T20 wicket at a venue whose international exposure so far has been limited to those two formats only.
But that was 48 hours before the match. As the septuagenarian Daljit, who heads BCCI’s grounds and pitches committee, stood on one end in a left-handed batsman’s stance and focused on imaginary roughs outside the off stump line, there were fears that a repeat of Pune, where also he showed up before the match, might be on the cards.
Those fears, though, may be a bit remote for two reasons. Firstly, a pitch ‘magician’ though Daljit is, even his artistry is subject to local conditions. At 5000 feet above sea level, and in the vicinity of the snow-laden Dhauladhars, it’s significantly cooler in Dharamshala than Pune – the nights are, in fact, positively chilly – and there has been moisture in the air due to intermittent rain on Wednesday night and Thursday. Even if he so wishes, Daljit can’t get a baked wicket like Pune here. Secondly, and more importantly, with the series locked at 1-1, India themselves wouldn’t want a repeat of Pune here where a toss of coin had a disproportionate say in the eventual result.
Meanwhile, Chauhan insisted on Thursday that he was the man in charge here and added that it would be a bouncy wicket. “I have never taken any instruction from anyone and I have always prepared wicket keeping the traditional nature of this track in mind. This will be a bouncy wicket and preferred by those who play the cut and pull shot well. At Dharamsala, we have always tried to provide result oriented wicket. Even during this season’s Ranji Trophy, the outcome was decided on fourth day lunch. As usual, the trend says that the pacers will get more wickets,” he said.
Pacemen indeed have ruled the roost in Dharamshala. There were three Ranji Trophy matches played here in October and November last year.
While the first one, between Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, was a high-scoring affair, in the remaining two the quicks got wickets by the bucketful: 37 out of 40 in Baroda versus MP and 39 out of 40 in Bengal vs Railways. Though part of the reason could be that BCCI’s neutral venue policy meant Chauhan could just let the Dharamshala wicket be.
Before that, in the last international match here, the first India versus New Zealand ODI in October, Hardik Pandya and Umesh Yadav bowled Test-match length on a track that assisted seam movement to leave the visitors reeling at 48 for 5 by the 13th over. It should be noted, however, that leg-spinner Amit Mishra and part-time spinner Kedar Jadhav shared the remaining five lower-order wickets.
So how far the apple — in this case the Tests wicket – falls off the tree remains to be seen. The in-form India No.3 Cheteshwar Pujara, though, sought to give the impression that he couldn’t care less about the pitch.
“It looks like a good wicket,” Pujara said at the press conference.
“We have played a lot of cricket even in Dharamsala. We have played enough first-class cricket, we know the conditions. We will just try and focus on things which want to focus on, rather than worrying about how the wicket will play. We have played enough cricket on different pitches throughout the season. So I don’t think the wicket will matter a lot to us. We are very confident, the way we have played throughout the series. Apart from the first Test match, we have played very good cricket. So we would look to continue that and win the series.”
Ominously, 48 hours before that first Test, a man in a brim hat did a recce of the pitch.
Australia pacer Josh Hazlewood feels India is under pressure going into the decider, and expects a result-oriented pitch at the HPCA Stadium.
Wicket will determine result: Hazlewood
On the pitch
I think the wicket will determine a result. They need to win so the wicket they serve up will bring a result into the game. I’d love to see it fast and bouncy. But that’s what they said in Pune as well and we did not quite get that. I think the way they saw Pat Cummins bowl the other day, they don’t really want it any faster than Ranchi, I wouldn’t think. We’d love it to be that way, would feel a bit more like home, but I don’t think we’ll get that.
The pressure is firmly on them. I think the whole Indian team has (felt pressure), and probably the skipper more so. There’s a little bit more pressure on him. It’s just that they are expected to win in their own backyard, just as we are at home. So the more pressure we can put on the better.
On physical toll
You’re probably going to bowl that many overs (210) in a Test match, it’s just the fact we did it one go. It was a long time out in the field but that’s what you prepare for and that’s what a Test match brings.