If you didn’t know that this was the Chinnaswamy Stadium, and there was a Test match to be played here in two days’ time, you could well have mistaken it for the entrance to one of those lavish open-air weddings. For, covering one of the centre wickets from all sides stood a make-shift shamiana — sheets of white canvas sliding down — with around eight metal stilts — four on each side — holding it up. Under it, under wraps, and shaded from the ominous skies above — and probably the incessant attention — lay the 22-yard surface that everyone has been waiting to catch a glimpse of. There were also jokes being cracked about how the ground-staff were hastily trying to arrange for 10 hair-dryers to hasten the drying of the pitch with that number soon being torpedoed to a 100.
The major reason for this unusual and ingenious security provided to the Chinnaswamy pitch is the untoward weather that Bangalore has had to contend with over the past week or so. Untoward, bordering on the bizarre — a strong adjective used boldly only after receiving the locals’ validation.
There was a drizzle all through Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, the skies were grey. You could catch a chilly draft as you walked along Church Street, crossed the hard-to-cross St Mark’s Road and continued on towards Chinnaswamy. But by the time you were entering the gates of the iconic stadium, you were sweating. For the chilly draft was accompanied by this irksome mugginess. And the threat of a heavy shower kept looming right through the day, even though it never came. Much to the relief of the ground-staff at Chinnaswamy, who have had to contend with a massive amount of rainfall over the last few days. Most here don’t believe the rain itself to be unseasonal but it’s more the volume of it that has left them surprised and literally running for cover.
The overcast conditions, though, naturally seemed to suggest that the biggest threat for the Indians in the second Test would be Vernon Philander. The burly swing bowler has earned renown around the world for exploiting movement in the air with more menace than any of his peers. Moreover, three years ago — the last time Bangalore hosted a Test — with the skies a similar hue and rain dominating proceedings, the New Zealand pace trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Doug Bracewell had made quite an impression on the Indian batting line-up.
Just then, in what AB de Villiers would describe as a ‘freakish injury’, Philander attempted a vain header in the customary football match being played the Proteas, stepped on Dean Elgar’s ankle while landing and subsequently twisted his own. So much so that he couldn’t even keep both feet on the ground. Philander, who was in visibly excruciating pain, had to hold on to the shoulders of two of the South African team management as he limped back to the pavilion before eventually having to be carried, almost cradled, back to the dressing-room. It looked ominous then and a short press release from Cricket South Africa (CSA) not long after confirmed that the seamer had indeed been ruled out for not just the second Test but the entire series. His replacement, Kyle Abbott, is known for his ability to jag the ball around too, but whether he can do the kind of justice to these conditions that Philander can remains to be seen.
With Philander gone and Dale Steyn still uncertain, South Africa’s fast bowling ranks suddenly look weaker than in over a decade, especially with neither the conditions nor the pitch expected to favour Morne Morkel, who’s expected to return after his own injury-break.
The pitch itself, despite still being covered, had been visited by a number of Indian and South African cricketers making their way for a recce. And then at around 3 pm, the ground-staff moved in and removed the canvas off the shamiana leaving behind only the stilts, as the sun finally began breaking out over Chinnaswamy. And all eyes, around the ground, suddenly turned towards what lay in the middle. On first sighting it had green patches with a few damp spots, more so towards the edges. The curator was quick to reveal that the spots were more from the pitch sweating under the covers than the actual rain and that the pitch would be in a good condition by the time the two captains walk out for the toss on Saturday morning.
So incessant has been the talk regarding pitches over the last week or so that it was almost obvious that the curator was the most sought-after man at the Chinnaswamy. Though he didn’t reveal much about how it will play, K Sriram did say that he has been working on it since November 1 and also that the 22 yards hasn’t seen any action on it since the end of the IPL five months ago.
He expected the pitch to be in ‘very good playing condition’ with the sun shining down brightly over it. But soon dark clouds returned to haunt Sriram & Co, sending them scurrying to bring the covers back on.
According to locals here, the Chinnaswamy pitch isn’t one that changes its stripes too much and more or less remains true to its natural self. The first session is when you see a number of wickets fall with the fast bowlers making the most of the overhead conditions. If the curator does decide to leave a couple of grassy patches, then we will see consistent bounce assisting both seamers and spinners. That will also mean the ball starts turning earlier than usual. But if the pitch is left grassless, it will still remain a batting paradise but the bounce will begin to get inconsistent from the third day onwards, with the fourth and fifth days witnessing a number of lbws as the ball starts keeping low. The spin, though not very significant, will be slow, and batsmen will have enough time to deal with it.
But we’ll only know for sure when the shaadi ka mandaap atmosphere at the centre of Chinnaswamy is finally lifted, which will of course depend on the Bangalore skies, even as South Africa break their heads about how to hastily repair their depleted arsenal.