After all, not for nothing is Sunil Gavaskar's inning of 96 on a treacherous turner in Bangalore against Pakistan, termed as one of the best ever in Tests, in terms of technique, temperament and concentration.
Is the Kanpur pitch worse than a Jo'burg or a WACA?
By Suneer Chowdhary
The Australian skipper Ricky Ponting hit the nail on the head recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, when he said, "I just think Test cricket is probably not as exciting anymore because of the wickets that we're playing on." With the versions of this sport getting abbreviated and further condensed to suit the audience's taste, the fears of Tests dying a slow death have been troubling more entities than one in the cricketing world. And to a large extent, it has been the twenty-two yard strip that has played its part in driving the people out of the stadiums, and more importantly, away from in the front of the television. Far too often we have seen the dominance of bat over the ball from day one, and unless one of the teams has been Australia, the resultant unexciting stalemates have left a lot to be desired.
Ponting goes on to add, "People would rather watch a game in Perth than they would in Antigua. There's much more happening. There's more bouncers, more batsmen ducking and weaving and sometimes falling on their backsides, more catches behind the wicket, more hook shots. That's the sort of Test cricket that we all grew up watching and enjoying."
Now while this cannot be too far from the truth, the fact of the matter is that, if the original WACA wicket - or for that matter the Kingsmead in which the Indians had once got blown away for a 100 and a 66 in a Test match - could make for compelling cricket, then so could the Wankhede or a Green Park in Kanpur. The only obvious difference between the two is the amount of bounce. While the ones in Australia and South Africa afford the cricket ball enough repulsion from gravity, the pitches in Asia - and more specifically India - behave in a manner that is as polarized as a chalk is from cheese. The thrill is probably the same in watching the batsmen being tested against a good pace attack, as it is to watch them negotiate spinners.
And then Ponting makes a point about 'a lot more happening at Perth'. How about the 'happenings' when the track does not bounce and the batsmen do not duck, but it turns and they have to show utmost concentration while countering the same in face of almost half a dozen fielders close-in. Which is why it is surprising to hear this double talk from Ricky Ponting, and more shocking that the ICC actually censured the pitch at the Green Park for being under prepared.
Starting with the Aussie skipper, and it would be worth remembering the criticism he had lashed out at the Wankhede pitch after the dead rubber played there in 2004. Needless to say, the Aussies had just lost, and more pertinently, they had not been able to chase down a target of around 100 on a wearing third day wicket. The pitch in that instance had a lot of venom for the spinners; so much so that the skipper Rahul Dravid had opened the Indian bowling attack with Harbhajan Singh and brought in Murali Kartik in only the fifth over of the second inning. Ponting had lambasted the pitch for the way it had played, very clearly forgetting that spinners, like fast bowlers, have a - or need to have a - decent say in cricket. So, if the matches could be made more interesting by some really pacy and bouncy tracks, the same could be achieved by a spinners' paradise.
And then there is a question of the ICC pointing fingers at the Green Park in Kanpur. Now again, one could agree that the home team management should not have a lot of say in the preparation of any track, yet, the home team does have a reasonable right to make a wicket that suits its bowlers. To add to this cliched argument, let's bring this Test match out of our memory closet for the purpose of analysis. For starters, the South Africans won the toss and had decided to bat first, something that should have helped the mindset of the Proteas batsmen. And it did. After all, they did have more than 60 runs put on for the first wicket, and at 160/2, would have backed themselves to get to at least a 350; a total that would have definitely challenged the Indians. Instead, some highly surprising defensive tactics by a couple of their batsmen, when they allowed themselves to be dictated by the Indian bowlers saw them get bowled out for 265. One would not be too off the mark if one called this as a good total on a wicket where the opponents would be batting last. That the South Africans could not get into the lead, is simply attributable to the fact that they did not have a reasonable set of bowlers to exploit the conditions. Putting it more bluntly, they never have had, and with all due respects to Paul Harris, still do not have a quality spinner in their ranks since their re-admission to Test cricket.
Even at this stage, the match looked very evenly poised, and a target of 200 may have sent the shivers down the Indian batting spines. What one saw instead, was one of the worst batting displays; something that reeked of absolute negative and listless cricket. Without scoring or even attempting to score the runs on any pitch that favours any breed of bowlers, one is a dead meat and with frontline batsmen playing at strike rates of 23, 33 and 38 per hundred balls respectively, it is only fair to say that the Proteas played into the Indian hands. It was this shockingly appalling batting mindset that sealed the fate in the home team's favour than the condition of the pitch itself.
Hasn't the Indian cricket team been exposed to some of the quickest tracks when they have toured? Even pitches that have traditionally been more sporting than the others have been altered in some cases. And this is only because of the twin-factor, of Team India not possessing the bowling attack to trouble the home batsmen who have been born and bred on these pitches, and conversely having batsmen who never put a foot on anything that deviated a millimeter or bounced above the knee.
To add more weight to this point, let us flash back further to the 1st Test match in between the same couple of teams, India and South Africa - in the 2006-07 series - at Wanderers in Johannesburg. The pitch was green and hard and it seamed and swung and did everything that could possibly be described as nasty. It was a pitch that not many bowlers of the faster variety would not want to take with them everywhere they played the game. India managed to score almost 250 batting first, and had enough firepower to dismiss the hosts for a sub-100 total. In turn, they went on to win the match on a wicket where they should have traditionally not done too well. This was possible because the Indians had the needed ammunition to fight fire with fire; quite plainly, they had the fast bowlers to exploit the conditions. By the same logic, why wasn't that pitch termed 'unfit' for cricket? And why haven't some of the others too been reported or reprimanded, over the eon of time, when they have played in the favour of the home team like the ones at Durban, Jo'burg, WACA in Perth and some of the ones across the Caribbean? Rank turners, like the harder, bouncier tracks inherently - and equally - make for exciting and gripping cricket, and if some of the countries cannot produce spinners to test the home batsmen, or batsmen to counter the close catching fielders and square turning deliveries, then it is the responsibility of such teams to resurrect the issue. Not for the sub-continent pitches to change nature.
And then there is the small matter of Test cricket being in a dire need for resurrection, for it to be a financially sustainable option. And for that to happen, the pitches need to be result oriented, one way or the other. There is requirement for them to make for gripping cricket, and solutions like uncovered pitches, limited over Test matches and likes have been suggested. In this scheme of things, it is surprising that tracks like the ones at Kanpur or Wankhede have come in for censure by the ICC. After all, not for nothing is Sunil Gavaskar's inning of 96 on a treacherous turner in Bangalore against Pakistan, termed as one of the best ever in Tests, in terms of technique, temperament and concentration.