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By Suresh Menon
Cricket has always been a game of great subtlety, not just in the manner in which greatness in a player is often understated but also in the way it has sometimes made winning and losing irrelevant. The rules of the game have existed since 1744, but it was only at the turn of this millennium that the 'spirit' of the game was codified, thus removing this vital aspect from the realm of the unstated and into the 'making it clear to the meanest intelligence' category. Perhaps that is a concession to our times when everything has to be unambiguously laid out so there is no misunderstanding. Soon jokes in magazines will be published with footnotes explaining the punch line.
But there were still areas of great subtlety, none more so than in the business of preparing wickets. Home sides always made tracks that suited their teams best – it would be foolish to do otherwise – and it was part of the game's charm that conditions differed from venue to venue; an aspect of greatness in the players remains the ability to master varying conditions. Those brought up on seaming tracks adapted to spinning wickets, and those who had spin for breakfast, lunch and dinner, displayed their range by making runs on tracks made for fast bowling. Even the great Don Bradman was reduced to ordinariness by wet wickets. According to one theory, he averaged just 16.6 in 11 Tests in those conditions.
Two things about the recent seemingly endless discussion on preparing pitches for the touring English team stand out. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's repeated cry for rank turners, and the comic manner in which tofficials have pretended that curators make the final decision, with the home team having little to do with the kind of wicket they are presented with on the morning of the match.
To take the second point first. For decades, like the uncodified 'spirit' of the game, the matter of laying out the 22 yards to suit the home bowlers was unwritten. It was decided by a combination of common sense, home strategy, captaincy requirements, all done with a smile and a wink. If your best bowlers are spinners, it would be downright ridiculous to serve up a track inimical to their skills. All captains have in the past had a chat with the groundsmen and the local authorities and expressed a preference. All very civilised.
If the groundsmen have failed to comply at different times – in Nagpur against Australia, in Chennai against England, in Chennai against the West Indies – it has been due to either incompetence or worse, with sabotage in mind given the political alignments in the Board or personal equations or lack thereof with the home captains.
To imagine that curators work on their own, without instructions is naieve; and to imagine that local authorities have no inputs into what one man does, accompanied by his mower and roller and sprinklers is to acknowledge that a major project like a Test match series with its sporting, entertaining, business and television angles is at the mercy of a single individual. Television, in particular does not want a Test match that ends in three days – the dream here is a tight game that finishes in the last session on the final day, if not the last ball!
Curators know what is expected of them. Usually, it does not even require a chat or a wink. Common sense alone can guide.
Dhoni's plea then falls into context. Even after his spinners won him the first Test in Ahmedabad, he was unhappy and suggested that the ball should spin from day one. When it did, in Mumbai, it left him with egg on his face since the opposition spinners ran away with the spoils.
To be fair, Dhoni is being honest and saying up front what Indian captains have said more subtly and with less volume over the years.
There aren't a whole lot of captains in India, or indeed players, who can read a pitch to perfection. That doesn't stop every street corner pundit from airing his views. Soil, weather conditions, types of layers, moisture, wear and tear, the wind factor, even the shape of the stadium and its orientation affects the way a wicket behaves. Although these can be studied scientifically and curators can derive patterns statistically, there are still enough imponderables to allow for the kind of ambiguity that makes for exciting cricket matches.
Refined sensibilities are all for subtlety and ambiguity in art or in sport. Sometimes the absence of these qualities grate.