As soon as the incessant coughing of the mechanised heavy roller stopped, a middle-aged groundsman, his shoulder sagging under the weight of a clunky sprinkler, began assiduously trudging up and down the strip, moistening every nascent blade of grass on the surface. While it’s not unusual to see scattered grass covering on a pitch two days before a Test which is dutifully scraped off before the match, or intermittent sprinkling of water to keep the surface firm, it was strange to notice their urgency.
But every time he turned around for a repeat, the pelting Nagpur sun would have sapped the moisture out of it, giving the surface its quintessential bone-dry countenance, albeit under a generous coating of grass, which though seems like it has already begun to dry.
If India’s team management indeed wants a green-top in preparation for the South Africa series in January, an increasingly dry surface is exactly what the groundsmen and curator don’t want, or rather they fear. Hence, the alacrity that often borders on panic, for the groundsmen here are unaccustomed to making pitches that even remotely resemble the Eden deck for the first Test, where there was considerate help for seamers throughout the match. They are habituated to generally two contrasting variants of turners — the slow ones, those that keep low and slow, the match meandering along to a drab conclusion, or those violent ones, with sharp turn and hysteric bounce. A green-top, thus, is as much a practical dilemma as an existential crisis.
Test matches in the past here have veered between these extremes. For the fourth Test against England in 2012, then skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni had implored for a turner, so that India could square the series, and thus packed his side with a quartet of spinners. But the strip’s progressive slumber ensured the most humdrum of draws. The one against South Africa in 2015 didn’t seem like it was ever watered at all, and the consequence was a three-day shootout and perpetual stigma.
Not only did the ICC rate it substandard, cricketers and pundits ripped the strip apart, calling it from “diabolical” to “akhara” and “Juhu beach” to “disgrace”. It was construed as taking home advantage way too far. Even now, the curator, Pravin Hignikar, a doughty all-rounder for Vidarbha in the late 1990s, dreads the word “diabolical”, though it was upon the team management’s insistence that he made such a surface in the first place. He was unlike his predecessor, the defiant Kishore Pradhan, who (in)famously turned down the requests of then skipper Sourav Ganguly to shave off the luxurious covering of grass, which eventually ended in Australia winning the 2004 series and conquering the “final frontier”. But then that was at the old stadium in Nagpur, where a 30-inch deep double-brick layer always ensured there was bounce, pace and carry. And the powerful VCA president Shashank Manohar was right behind him.
The one at Jamtha has the normal 15-20 inch brick layer, but they realised, more so after a string of low scores in the ICC World T20 – including the case of New Zealand spinners rattling out India for a meagre 79 – that it was high time they did something about the swelling notoriety of the surface. The clear-cut solution was to relay the square, which had begun to age. So the surface was dug up and relaid, the soil changed completely, before it was opened at the start of this season with the promise of “a true pitch with sufficient, and more importantly consistent, bounce for seamers”.
Ahead of the first international match, an ODI against Australia in September, Hignikar confidently announced that the new surface would “redeem the ground’s lost glory”, though it never quite materialised as the strip was more on the slower side, and only the onset of dew as the evening wore on enlivened it, making it considerably easier for batting. But at least, it didn’t acquire a diabolical hue.
The only Ranji fixture-the only first-class fixture here after the South Africa Test in 2015 – this season here too conformed to the usual pattern of the strip getting incrementally slow, so much so that even struggling Chhattisgarh escaped with a draw, batting out 163.4 overs in the first innings. Such a surface for the Test wouldn’t please the hosts the least, and so the groundsmen, curator and officials are slogging overtime to conjure a “green-top” and ensure they don’t face the management’s wrath.
While the curators themselves admit that they can’t predict how the pitch would behave over the course of five days, here they are fighting not only against history but also against elements like weather and soil. The alluvial clay soil has poor permeability characteristics, and hence can’t hold moisture for a long time. Since it last rained in Nagpur more than a month ago, there wouldn’t be underlying water trapped in the soil either. The groundsmen have to neutralise it by heavily watering the surface for over a week. But the pounding sun doesn’t help it one bit, rendering the grass dry and catalysing the gradual deterioration of the surface. Now it would depend on the overnight dew for moisture retention on the surface, which would limit assistance to seamers, if at all there is any, to the first hours.
Or in other words, it will be incredibly difficult to replicate an Eden Gardens-like pitch in Nagpur, even if the teams wants. The former had all the factors that abetted swing bowling – rain, overcast conditions, a relatively high water table and soil that had high water retention properties. Hence lurks, in their apparent over-eagerness to change the basic nature of the pitch, the possibility of neither-this-nor-that sort of a wicket. A diabolical one, perhaps? Hignikar would run away from that word.