Be on the ball

suhrith parthasarathy | Updated on January 22, 2018

Indian captain Virat Kohli attempts to grab a catch on the third day of the first test match against South Africa at PCA Stadium in Mohali on November 7, 2015. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar   -  THE HINDU;THE HINDU

Suhrith Parthasarathy   -  BUSINESS LINE

For test cricket to remain relevant, we don’t need better pitches but greater application of mind and technique from its participants

Almost every time a test match is played in India, the nature of the pitch comes into sharp focus, and is often the subject of harsh criticism. It was no different when India played South Africa at Mohali earlier this month, in the first test of its ongoing four-match series. “I don’t think it’s a very good cricket wicket. It is my personal opinion,” said Dean Elgar, the opening batsman for the Proteas, at the end of the first day’s play. “It is a result wicket, which is expected when you come here. But kudos to India, they are obviously going to prepare wickets like these against us, I’m sure. And we know coming here, it was going to be very different from what we are used to. So it’s not a very good cricket wicket but it is a result wicket which can go either way.”

A mere glance at the scorecard of the test match at Mohali might appear to vindicate Elgar’s statement. India made scores of 201 and 200 in their two innings; none of its batsmen barring Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara made meaningful contributions; South Africa, in reply, were bundled out for 184 in their first innings; and in their chase the visitors managed a paltry 109. The match was over in three days, with none of the batsmen managing to completely conquer the apparent demons on the pitch. But, in reality, as is so often the case, scorecards can only tell us so much.

A test match is meant to be a stage where, over a period of five days, cricketers can showcase their finest technical skills. This often requires a sustained and supreme mental and physical effort from the participants. For the viewing audience, a test match can go through both troughs and peaks, but its appeal, at least partly, stems from the sport’s glorious unpredictability. What we want in a test match pitch, therefore, regardless of the kind of bowler or batsman that it is meant to assist, is a pitch that can last five days; a pitch that can, if evenly matched teams play to reasonable potential, take a match into the fifth day with the possibility of at least one of the sides securing a victory.

Contrary to what many have argued, the pitch at Mohali, in all respects except the ultimate scorecard produced, contained no evidence of any failure to contain these ingredients. It may not have been the perfect test match pitch. But had the batsmen, as a collective whole, of at least one of the two teams, showed even the most basic aptitude to play patiently on what was, at its worst, an attritional wicket, the match would have certainly produced a more compelling contest.

Unfortunately, barring a handful of batsmen — Vijay and Pujara of India, and AB de Villiers and, to a lesser extent, Hashim Amla of South Africa — none of the players displayed even a semblance of application required at this level. Even these batsmen who did make reasonable contributions failed to convert their starts into big scores, and almost all their dismissals owed to poor batting.

This India-South Africa series was meant to enthral. The former is a side that is often excellent in home conditions and the latter is a team that hasn’t lost a test series away from home since 2006. That the first test match at Mohali produced such a tame contest was a consequence not so much of the pitch as it was of poor batting.

Yet, the questions about the morality of producing pitches that assist a subcontinental team playing at home wouldn’t go away. Enquiries are rarely conducted when South Africa or Australia produce a bouncing, speedy track to assist their pacers, or when English pitches leave more than a tinge of grass when playing visiting teams from Asia. However, when India or Sri Lanka play host on wickets that take spin, the pitch is deemed unsuitable for test match cricket.

What’s true is this: regardless of where cricket is being played, what we don’t need is a pitch that makes the sport an unequal contest. A pitch bathed in grass, which makes batting difficult even with proper application and technique, is just as bad as a veritable dust bowl. But the fact that a pitch might assist a certain kind of bowler, during the course of a test match, does not, on its own, make a wicket unsuitable.

Like every other team, India is entitled to produce pitches that help its best bowlers. No doubt, on certain occasions in the past, India has produced wickets that had made batting against spin rather impossible, creating in the process rather unattractive contests. But the surface at Mohali wasn’t one such instance. The criticism, if any, about the first test match should, therefore, focus on what’s becoming an alarming trend in test cricket: the inability of modern-day batsmen to grind their way through difficult periods. For test cricket to remain relevant, what we need is not necessarily better pitches, but greater application of mind and technique from its participants.

suhrith parthasarathy is a Chennai-based lawyerwriter

Follow suhrith parthasarathy @suhrith

Published on November 20, 2015

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