Around mid-afternoon, as the Indian team hit the nets, a Sri Lankan ‘entourage’ led by captain Dinesh Chandimal and accompanied by head coach Nic Pothas, batting coach Thilan Samaraweera, bowling coach Rumesh Ratnayake and team manager Asanka Gurusinha arrived at the Eden Gardens. The ‘pitch reconnaissance party’ went straight to the centre square, inspected the wicket and then sought out local curator Sujan Mukherjee for a lengthy conversation.
Wriddhiman Saha, being the local boy, was apparently India’s team leader for pitch assessment. While the frontline batsmen did the netting, the ‘keeper-batsman had a thorough survey of the 22 yards. He seemingly had notes to exchange with the team management. Later, head coach Ravi Shastri, skipper Virat Kohli and vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane took a close look at the wicket.
From a distance of about 80 yards, it was difficult to differentiate the centre strip and the lush green outfield. A surface with over 6mm grass cover felt like a fast bowler’s dream. The length of the grass, however, would be reduced to 3mm before the first Test, commencing on Thursday. The ‘green, green grass of home’ has become the new norm at this venue. The focus this time, though, is to produce a fast and bouncy deck.
The Eden Gardens pitch has changed character ever since the whole centre square was re-laid two seasons ago. Seamers now enjoy bowling here. But because of its location – very close to the Hooghly river – and the nature of the soil, bounce had always been on the lower side. Efforts are on for an overhaul.
“Bounce comes from the compaction of the soil, about four inches underneath the top layer. The drier and harder the area, the steeper is the bounce. With no rain around, about three weeks are required to achieve the required compaction. This pitch hasn’t achieved it fully. But efforts are on to complete the task before the Test,” a member of the ground staff told this paper.
Accordingly, the centre strip is hardly getting any water at the moment. Watering is restricted to the areas surrounding Pitch No. 5. The ground staff also informed that black clay has been used to prepare the pitch rather than silt clay to ensure steeper bounce and better carry. According to a source, there’s hardly any chance of the grass being brushed off the pitch. Mowers will trim it to the required level to allow opportunities to everyone – batsmen, fast bowlers and also spinners, who can use the extra bounce to their advantage. Turn, however, is very unlikely.
Last year, when India and New Zealand played a Test here, the Eden pitch had a decent grass cover. But the match was played in September-October during monsoon, so the surface had moisture and it wasn’t very hard. Bereft of proper firmness, the bounce was a bit uneven as well. Fast bowlers from both sides collectively accounted for 26 scalps. Bhuvneshwar Kumar took 5/48 in the first innings and played a big part in India’s 178-run victory.
Seamers got plenty of wickets here in the Ranji Trophy last season as well. Then, earlier this year, Jharkhand won by 42 runs against Saurashtra in a Vijay Hazare Trophy fixture after being bowled out for 125 in 27.3 overs, batting first. Varun Aaron returned with 4/20, bowling 10 overs unchanged.
The India-Australia ODI at Eden in September witnessed a magical spell from Bhuvneshwar, 3/9, with India defending 252. The pitch had good bounce to start with but died down as the match progressed. Once again, the rainy season and the moisture played spoilsport, bounce-wise.
The Kolkata weather during this time of the year is pretty dry and a member of the ground staff felt that the surface underneath the top soil would have achieved better compaction if pitch-watering had stopped in the first week on November. “Now some extra efforts are needed”.
A pace-friendly wicket gives India a clear advantage, with Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav in their ranks. Bhuvneshwar, who takes a fancy to the Eden pitch, could be the third seamer and his inclusion will add muscles to the lower-order batting.
A significant portion of India’s net session on Monday was about practising against short, rising deliveries. Rahane took a lot of throwdowns, with the ball being hit hard short of a length. Kohli also faced some short-pitched stuff before going to the nets proper.
It’s likely that Cheteshwar Pujara, too, will concentrate on practising against the extra bounce, when he trains on Tuesday. The Saurashtra batsman, along with his Ranji team mate Ravindra Jadeja, opted to rest on Monday.