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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Contest of skill or game of fortune: Bengaluru pitch poor advertisement for Test cricket

When a wicket starts to behave like this from the first hour of the first session of the first day, there has to be something wrong with the game itself.

Written by Sandip G | Bengaluru |
Updated: March 13, 2022 4:48:52 pm
India's Hanuma Vihari, third left, smiles after playing a shot as Sri Lanka's Charith Asalanka, right, falls in an attempt to stop the ball during the first day of the second cricket test match between India and Sri Lanka in Bengaluru, India, Saturday, March 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

The first day of the pink-ball Test delivered what it promised. Frantic action and frenetic entertainment. On a manic Saturday, as many as 16 wickets fell, runs were blazed at a rate of four an over, sixes and fours flew, the twilight sky lit up beatifically to be the background of numerous picture-perfect selfies and groupies, tinseltown celebrities flocked in.

Pink ball Tests are quite a spectacle—like the slowest and oldest format paint-brushed in the colours of the youngest and supposedly the most colourful format. A repackaging to woo the new-age audience to the age-old format. Days like these would save Test cricket from its imminent death. There is crowd, there is action, there is fun, there is life.

But think again, was the entertainment of the highest quality? Was it not superficial? Was it not a perverse thrill? The pleasures a game on a pitch like this can produce is mind-numbingly inferior in quality. Almost like a farce. Almost sadism.

The pitch, after all, is the soul of a good game. Akin to a canvas for a painter, the muse for a writer, the model for a sculptor. Good pitches promise good contests. By good it implies not fast-paced action, but balanced, absorbing contests.

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Sri Lanka’s Dhananjaya de Silva bats during the first day of the second cricket test match between India and Sri Lanka in Bengaluru, India, Saturday, March 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

A great batsman or a great bowler might transcend the surface, its instincts and impulses, but a pitch, a day one pitch especially, should not be so diabolical in its characteristics. It was but a poor advertisement for Test cricket—just as the Rawalpindi one was last week. That seemed anaesthetised; this one hyper-activated. Both are dangerous for the game’s health.

For a pitch to turn, or bounce, or bounce and turn, even on day one in the subcontinent, is not a crime. But not perhaps so extravagantly, so unplayably, especially on a first day, not from the seventh over of the day, not if puffs of dust are blowing into the face of the batsmen from the wicket as early as the seventh over. Not least when invariable bounce kinks in from the 15th over. The combination of all these elements made batting an ordeal, where you not only require skills to survive, but also slices of good fortune. When fortune outweighs skills on the balance, a contest becomes meaningless.

Sri Lanka’s Niroshan Dickwella bats during the first day of the second cricket test match between India and Sri Lanka in Bengaluru, India, Saturday, March 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

Only a shred of wood helped Hanuma Vihari survive a daisy-cutter that landed on good length and just shot along the ground. Virat Kohli was not so fortunate. He sprung back to a shortish ball to work it on the leg-side. Only that the ball hardly bounced, it just shot all along, hitting him just above his ankle. Kohli stood in the follow-through in half-shock and half-bewilderment, his mouth agape. Experienced as he is, he might not have been dismissed with a flukier ball as this on Day One.

Fluke—that exactly was it. There was no involvement of the bowler’s skill or the lack of skill of the batsman. Such variables did not matter after a point, as it was reduced to a game of fortune. There was nothing Kohli could have done better.

Or Ravindra Jadeja a few overs later. He shifted back to cut a length ball off Lasith Embuldeniya. Maybe, knowing the nature of the strip he shouldn’t have, but it is one of his staple shots, a muscle-memory stroke. He went for it, but the ball bounced so awkwardly into him that he was totally blindsided by the ball, as if it had springs attached to it.

Not even fast bowlers would produce that sort of devious lift, even from back of length area in the subcontinent. Jadeja was not as shocked as Kohli was, he wore a face of quiet resignation as if he knew it. There were plenty of other instances wherein the batsmen could just push their bat at the ball and hope the edge eluded them or the ball kept low, when they just gasped and sighed. Both Rohit Sharma and Vihari would have expected the ball to spin so sharply across them.

When a wicket starts to behave like this from the first hour of the first session of the first day, there has to be something wrong with the game itself and the thought behind serving such a wicket. To think what perdition awaits this Test match sends a chilly shiver through the spine. Just imagine the tantrums it would throw once the cracks open up (that is if the match lasts that long). Great batsmen are made to look average; average batsmen are made to look great. It says a lot about the ineptness of Sri Lanka’s bowling that they let India off the hook towards the end. Certainly, it is not what cricket wants.

Whatever be the reasoning behind this farce, be it more points to boost the points-tally in the WTC table or wooing the crowd in the pretence of faster action, the most fundamental aspect of the game, that is the pitch should not be held hostage to greed. Eventually, it would end up destroying the essence of Test cricket, its purpose and the very joy it brings. And cricket boards world over should reassess their pitch strategies. Pink-ball Test is an innovative concept, but only if used wisely, lest it would bite cricket back.

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