I am one of the many disgruntled fans of the Indian cricket who have thought for a while that pitches which assist fast bowlers at home are the best breeding ground for Indian batsmen to tackle the barrage they are subjected to in places like Australia, South Africa and England. Consequently, I found Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma’s remark about how the boot would be on the other foot when Australia travels to India quite objectionable, especially with the team verging on a 3-0 hiding. However, that view does not, and in my opinion should not, detract from the fact that pitches which offer plentiful turn make for contests in test cricket which are as exciting as those played on pitches conducive to fast bowling. This being the case I find the tendency to label the latter type of pitches as sporting, to the exclusion of the former type, somewhat unfair, convenient and even parochial.
While going through the comments’ thread on a cricinfo article about the Indian cricket team’s woeful performances since its tour to England last year, I read an observation from a gentleman – presumably Australian – which suggested that the pitches in Australia befit the tag of sporting decks more than those elsewhere. To some extent this view is borne out: Sydney is a particularly compelling example given that it keeps fast bowlers interested with the new ball, the batsmen interested after that even as good spinners can come into their own during the last two days. Indeed, the case of the Sydney Cricket Ground, and to some extent the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is ideal and should not, therefore, be confused with what is normally meant by sporting wickets – those on which a good contest between bat and ball is assured. Against the latter sense, a spinners’ dustbowl is often referred to as “unsporting” whereas a pace man’s paradise is seldom referred to as anything more than “challenging”, a bland adjective if ever there was one.
Besides being unsporting, pitches that offer spin are often accused as being tailored to suit the home team’s – in most cases a team from the subcontinent – needs even by the most sapient of observers. What is more, you would think that this is a crime. By contrast when South Africa prepares a twenty-two yard strip sprinkled with grass to intimidate Sri Lanka or when Indians await a “talked up” perked up Perth pitch (just a metaphor; the wicket at the WACA for the last test was a beauty and the Indians batted woefully!) we hear zilch about the home team playing to its strengths but seldom hear the end of the fabled frailty of sub-continentals against the moving and bouncing ball. While the Australian and South African teams of the recent past have admittedly adapted better to playing on turning tracks than sub-continentals to juicy ones overseas, that is no argument as to why wickets that offer turn alone should be singled out as being home team-conspired even as those which assist chin music are surmised to be neutral fait accompli.
The fact of the matter is exciting test matches are no more a norm on fast and bouncy turfs than they are on slower ones which aid considerable spin: the state of the pitch offers a context for the contest, no more no less. Whenever the term “bad pitches” is mentioned my mind instantly goes back to the 2004 test match at Bombay where Australia, chasing a measly fourth innings target, was dismissed for 93. Ricky Ponting complained about a sub-standard pitch; but what is forgotten in all the hullabaloo is Michael Clarke, too, picked up 6/9 in the second Indian innings in that test. Whether Ponting’s complaint was legitimate, and whether it would have come forth had Australia lost the test, is a matter of speculation, but it is undeniable that the test match in question was as exciting as test matches can be. The tied test between India and Australia in 1986 was played out at Chepauk, the site of Hirwani's sixteen-wicket debut, a game where Dean Jones scored one of the most tenacious double-hundreds of all time! THE test match of 2001 was played on a typical Kolkata strip but there was little in the wicket itself to foreshadow the Australian collapse in the final session. Similarly, there was little in the pitch (forget the umpiring) at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2008 that justifies India’s losing three wickets to Michael Clarke in a single over and eventually getting bowled out minutes before stumps on Day 5. South Africa chased down 414 against Australia at Perth to set up a famous win and take a 1-0 lead in their 2008/9 series Downunder; nor did the second Ashes test at Edgbaston in 2005 turn out to be a nail-biter only because the curator at the home of Yorkshire roll out a fine pitch for the clash. Trivially, a pitch can only influence the contest but ultimately it is the thirteen who are out in the middle at any given point in time who dictate its terms.
After all, Malcolm Marshall, Dale Steyn and Glenn McGrath have conquered the sub-continent as well as Bhagwat Chandrasekhar bamboozled England in England, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralidharan made the world their stage and Anil Kumble (towards the latter part of his career) succeeded during his last two tours to Australia. If they had carped instead of going out there, competing and raising the bar, they would have been the poorer and world cricket the poorer for them.