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By Sunil Gavaskar
As the DLF Indian Premier League comes to the final weekend some stats are quite startling. At the time of writing the top five six hitters in the competition are all Indians and the top three wicket takers are all spinners. Some fancied teams have taken a tumble and though the quickies have not found the Indian pitches to their liking they haven’t made life easy for the opposition especially some of the Indian batting stars.
Let us take the last first. India’s domestic first class structure has always been dependent on pitches made to suit the home team’s strength. That invariably means either a flat pitch where the ball does not bounce too much and hardly ever turns and all the batsman has to do is to put his front foot down the pitch and play through the line and the ball will meet the middle of the bat and speed away to the boundary on the fast dry outfield. The other end of the spectrum is that the pitch is deliberately kept dry and not watered enough so that it begins to crumble after a few deliveries are bowled on it and so the spinners come into play. They do not have to try and lure the batsman to their doom by flighting the ball trying to make it loop and then having the batsman dismissed as the ball spins away from him. The pitch does it all for them so that there is no need to toss the ball in the air to get the loop and deception. All that he has to do is to make sure the ball lands in the correct area and yes he won’t flight the ball since there is the chance that with the heavy bats of today any batsman can mistime the ball into the stands for a six. Why spoil his bowling economy rate by giving the batsman that extra second to come down the pitch by flighting the ball? Then when a hue and cry is raised about pitches being too one-sided in favour of the batsman or the spinner; some guy gets the bright idea that we need ‘sporting’ pitches.
The general belief in India is that a sporting pitch is one where there is plenty of grass left on the surface and the ball flies any which way. Most games on such pitches end in a couple of days with batsmen having earlier plundered plenty of runs on flat wickets nurse some bruises apart from the big one to their egos. The home teams justify such pitches be it the grassy ones or crumbly ones as being the home advantage quite clearly forgetting that it has to be an even contest between bat and ball. Since the grassy pitches are once in a blue moon not too much noise is made about them. The fact remains though that there aren’t too many in the country who know how to prepare a pitch that has something in it for all the departments of the game.
The last few months have shown that the pitches at Hyderabad, Nagpur and Bengaluru are the better ones in the country and where the seam bowler can also ply his trade. The quicker bowler also has got reward for putting in a bit more effort by getting the ball to bounce. If anything the recent IPL tournament which has been played on pitches like these has shown that the young Indian stars need to buckle up on their technique if they want to succeed at the Test level for they have been found wanting when confronted with the short delivery. The number of batsman out either hooking or just fending off the short ball is alarming to say the least and does not augur well for the future. All these players have been brought up on dead pitches where the ball hardly climbs above the waist and have thus become such pronounced front foot players that they have lost the technique of backfoot play unless it is the square cut. Dale Steyn, Shuan Tait and even Zaheer Khan have exposed the horrible lack of technique and skill in handling the fast short pitched delivery. Most times the batsman has been so far committed on the front foot that he has little chance of transferring his weight leave aside moving onto the backfoot to deal with that ball. The discomfiture is obvious and though he may go on to get runs because of the restrictions on the number of short pitched deliveries in an over as also the heat and humidity that discourages a bowler from trying too many short balls, the observant ones note the inability to play the short ball for future engagements in an international fixture.
The IPL has also shown that unlike expected the spinners have picked up more wickets and have also been more economical with the runs given. The slower the ball comes onto the bat the harder it is for the batsman to get the pace to hit it. He therefore has to use more power to hit the six and in doing so he can mistime the shot because the bat speed may not be what that particular ball needs. With the pitches also being drier with the weather there is more grip for the spinner and he is thus able to get more spin and that too defeats the batsman’s attempt to hit the long ball.
By the time this is in print the semi finalists may well be decided and those who are not in the fray will have time to reflect on what went wrong. The only consolation is that this is a format where the form book counts for little and those who string it together in three hours will win the day.