The only aural intrusion to the pervading quietude of the PCA stadium was the shrieky whirr of the solitary mower, assiduously trimming the outfield. Fighting off the urges of a nap, ushered in by the balminess of the November afternoon, its driver occasionally yawns. Familiar as he must be with the contours and dimensions of the ground, he could afford the drowsy-driving.
He, though, carefully evaded an enclosed central parch, where seven rectangles of varying shades of green are in a bucolic slumber, side-by-side and unattended. The baldest of them would be subject to many inquisitive, even sceptical and quizzical, glares from Thursday, leading up to the Test that begins on Saturday.
In the days to come, its complexion, texture and character would all be speculated upon, assessed and eventually judged in microscopic detail. Should the pitch talk cease to exist a day after the match, the ground’s seasoned curator Daljit Singh should feel reasonably satisfied, for good pitches are seldom discussed after the match, while the bad ones continue to keep haunting their makers.
Daljit, the affable custodian of this 24-year-old ground would know better of the fickleness of judgements, appraisals and vilifications. He was severely criticised for the inaugural Test wicket here, a surface that helped mould Mohali’s reputation as the liveliest in the country, endowed with sufficient bounce, decent pace and even some lateral movement in the first session. Tired overseas pacers tend to look at Mohali like a well-spring in a desert. Which is not always true.
Before we begin unravelling this Mohali myth, let’s get back to the first ever Test here, between West Indies and India in 1994, by the end of which Daljit bore the wrath of the Indian team management. This was because the curator had dished out a surface tailored to suit the gifts of West Indies pacers. Though, defected by the absence of Curtly Ambrose, the touring team’s pace attack was at his furious best, with Courtney Walsh, Kenny Benjamin, Cameron Cuffy and Anderson Cummins around.
The story goes that the then skipper Walsh, impeded by a recurring neck strain and with a neck brace in tow, was a doubtful starter. That is until the giant Jamaican cast his eyes on the strip. He duly banished the neck brace and made himself available for the match, and with the help of his fellow pacers squared the series with a massive 243-run victory, India’s first defeat at home in six years. The enduring image of the match was a bleeding Manoj Prabhakar, his helmet and nose battered by a Walsh bouncer. The centurion in the first innings was rushed to the nearby hospital, the facilities of which didn’t impress him much either. He was left grumbling about the pitch and the hospital.
It’s a pity that this photograph doesn’t adorn the stadium walls — where you can find frames of cricket’s glitterati and other epochal events in world cricket. There is Steve Waugh, Garfield Sobers, Jack Hobbs, Michael Holding, Sir Donald Bradman, and even Michael Atherton doing the walls; there’s Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman trudging off to the pavilion after their remarkable Eden Gardens heist, there is Dravid again, with Virender Sehwag after their humungous partnership in Lahore, that of Laxman wildly gesticulating at Pragyan Ojha in that nail-biter at this very ground in 2010.
But not one of Prabhakar, with the blood-drenched towel on his face or that of a growling Walsh or his fiery understudy Benjamin bouncing out a stupefied Vinod Kambli. The only remnant of this Test match is Benjamin’s name — in fact the very first name — on the wooden honours’ board that greet the visitors at the PCA lobby. It’s not that PCA doesn’t celebrate the Tests it has hosted, but it’s the general, almost intrinsic paradox you find here. After all, they had their health club inaugurated by Sourav Ganguly, among the least fitness-conscious cricketers of his time and a swimming pool inaugurated by Inzamam-ul-Haq. Well you could imagine Pakistan’s gentle giant dozing off in the pool, or wading through the waters with the same indolence he showed while running between the wickets.
This paradox has continued to haze the perceptions of visiting teams here. Prevalent is a forethought that the surface here invariably assists seamers, and there were even wanton rumours that England had stuffed their side with as many as six fast bowlers with the hope that the Mohali surface will disproportionately assist the faster men. Somehow reach Mohali unscathed and unleash their pack of fast bowlers on the Indian batsmen, seemed to be their tack.
It must have been but a hollow rumour, for the England team management are not foolish enough to not dig up the recent numbers the ground has churned out. In fact, since the maiden Test, Mohali has turned out to be a stomping ground for the hosts, having not lost the 10 Tests since, and winning half a dozen of them. In the last Test here, against South Africa, the wicket-ratio will make an alarming read for them. Spinners accounted for as many as 34 scalps in a match that wound up in less than three days. Even as novice a part-timer as Dean Elgar picked up four wickets on the first day.
Even if you discount the recent fixture as an aberration, given the preconditions of the match, Mohali has incrementally lost its fabled bite. Only that it’s sometimes made to look pacer-friendlier by the general deterioration or sluggishness of most other subcontinental surfaces. In the fixtures since the West Indies Test, both spinners and pacers have haggled wickets off it. The honours board offers unmitigated proof.
Beneath Benjamin, the first entrant on the honours board, are Dion Nash and Javagal Srinath, but then you have to read out the names of Anil Kumble (twice), Danish Kaneria, Harbhajan Singh and Danish Kaneria to find another pacer’s name of the board, that’s Mitchell Johnson,when he took five wickets for 64 runs.
The same match had another entry that of Zaheer Khan—5/94. But on both instances, the respective teams had posted 405 and 428, suggesting the batsmen weren’t left feeling quite bedevilled. The pace-bowling entry is Peter Siddle’s, his 5/71 coming in India’s first-innings total of 499. This implies seamers haven’t had much of an incisive, or decisive, influence on the match. In fact Australia lost both these matches.
This, though, is not to say Mohali affords negligible assistance to seamers. It does offer bounce and carry, and pretty uniformly throughout the match. It rewards the bowlers who bend their back and hit the deck hard. Also, it’s not where one ball would snort at the batsman’s throat and the next will creep shin high.
It can never be a dustbowl either—even the South Africa Test wasn’t an fiendish subcontinental turner, and while it did help the spinners from the first day, there was a perceptible lack of application from batsmen of both sides.
But in general the surfaces tend to become slower as the game progresses here. It might have to do with the ageing squares, which haven’t been relaid since the first Test. So understandably, its firmness too deteriorates, though the nature of the soil is such that it doesn’t break up dramatically.
On Thursday, Daljit would escort the media up till the main strip and patiently answer their queries in diplomatic platitudes, with a disclaimer that “we cannot predict how the pitch would behave on the fifth day” and the assurance that “the pitch will last all five days”. There again is a telling paradox. Either way, it won’t be the sort of pitch where Broad will feel compelled to shrug off his tendon strain on the foot and do a Walsh. Or an Indian batsmen would fear for a Prabhakar encore.