“It’s the first match of the home series, and I knew the first question will be about the pitch. And I also know that the last question will also be about the pitch.”
— Anil Kumble, at the press conference on Tuesday
You know the Test season in India is about to begin when a cricket ground, a vast space, appears to shrink itself into its rectangular nucleus. The surroundings fade out and everyone seems to be focused solely on the 22-yard strip in the middle. Sure enough, pitches are important in limited overs too, but such is the nature of the beast that is Test cricket that ‘pitch prediction’ becomes an elaborate ritual.
The curator gets down to the business furiously with groundsmen in tow. It’s reminiscent of a seance scene. When the spell is cast, a day or two ahead of the match, the home team’s coach and players come and stare at the wicket meditatively. Often they bend down and feel the track, like a concerned relative feeling the patient’s pulse. What kind of devil will enter the pitch? Even the psychic — the curator — can’t always say for certain. Though, like an expert spiritualist, they always appear confident.
“The Kanpur pitch will helps the pacers in the first hour or so. It will be good to bat on for the first two days, and then it will begin to take turn. It is a sporting track.”
— Shiv Kumar, Green Park curator
You have heard it before. Almost every curator/local administrator across venues around the country says pretty much this when microphones are thrust in his face ahead of a Test match. It’s perhaps Daljit Singh’s effect. For Daljit, who is BCCI’s pitch and ground committee chairman, proclaimed ahead of the 2008 India versus South Africa Test here in Kanpur that it would be “a sporting wicket”, even as Shiv Kumar nodded in agreement. It turned out to be a rank turner, allowing India to level the series in three days.
Seven years later, the same was said of Daljit’s home turf Mohali before the first Test against the Proteas last year, though not by the chief curator himself as he doesn’t offer pitch-predictions anymore, but by PCA secretary MP Pandove. “Why should it turn from day one? It’s going to be a sporting wicket. It will have the freshness on day one, will be good for batting the next two days, and then break up on the last two,” Pandove had said. The match got over inside three days. Even India barely crossed 200, falling to Simon Harmer and part-timer Dean Elgar’s spin.
Then, Amar Karlekar, curator of the Jamtha Stadium in Nagpur, had also used the adjective “sporting” for the pitch in the run-up to the third India-South Africa Test. What came to pass was a powdery mess, and the match itself was over in two and a half days. The pitch would be rated as poor by the International Cricket Council and would receive an official warning.
“Unless grass grows on this pitch miraculously overnight, we will see turn.”
— Mike Hesson, New Zealand coach
There are no sufficient reasons to believe there will surely be a repeat of Kanpur 2008 or Nagpur 2015. Context is important. In 2008, India were facing the ignominy of a series defeat after losing the first match to the South Africans on an unexpectedly green track in Ahmedabad. To correct one wrong, they went to the other extreme in the last Test. Then, last year, the home team had lost both the T20 and ODI series to the Saffers. In the last ODI, in fact, they conceded 438 runs on the flattest of the flat tracks at Wankhede, much to the consternation of the Indian team management. The South Africans were not only ascendant, they were the No.1 ranked team going into the Test series. Predictably then, India fell back to its go-to move.
But when we remember Nagpur, we must also not forget what happened next. And more than anyone else, the Indian team shouldn’t. Once the hosts had won the series, the next match was played on a perfectly acceptable track at the Feroz Shah Kotla. It did assist the fast bowlers on Day One. Ajinkya Rahane made two centuries in two innings, and spin and reverse swing too came into play. And India won by 337 runs. They showed they can secure a legitimate win on a normal track.
A sandpit of pitch makes a contest anybody’s game, pretty much a flip of the coin. It’s the first Test of the series, there no need for extreme methods. Moreover, New Zealand have a decent spin attack of their own, and India know it having lost to them in the World T20 at, wherelse, Jamtha. But, equally crucially, this is also a more confident team under a coach who knows his position is secure. Unlike Ravi Shastri, who was never seen more than a stop-gap arrangement even though he stayed with the team for nearly two years.
Therefore, New Zealand coach Hesson’s fears notwithstanding, there is a good chance this pitch will be a positive upgrade on the one India rolled out in 2008. Of course a typical Indian pitch assists turn, so will this one. But it’s unlikely that it will be unplayable.
As Kumble added on Tuesday: “No one is demanding for a turner, we will play on what we get. Our spinners are better, based on quality and experience. It’s an Indian track, therefore it will turn. It was typical Kanpur pitch.”
By the way, it wasn’t quite the last question, but the penultimate one.