After a 333-run win within three days in the first cricket Test at Pune, an unusual question was put to Australian skipper Steve Smith in the post-match conference. “Do you think such a pitch can be prepared without instructions from the home team management?”
In the build-up to that game—from 23-25 February—as well as during it, the pitch at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium was constantly in the spotlight. The prediction was a result in three days; the visitors’ camp also had an opinion. “It will take turn from ball one, and potentially some up and down movement for the fast bowlers as well. I haven’t really seen a pitch like that before a Test starts,” Smith had said at the pre-match conference.
He was right. R. Ashwin came on in the second over of the match. The second ball he bowled spun. India, having played on competitive flat tracks for the entire home season, were given a turner, and they fell short, in their own backyard.
While it’s easy for supporters to blame the pitch or the toss—Australia won the toss and batted first—India’s defeat doesn’t support either argument. The Pune result helps break a few myths about home advantage.
“No, I didn’t talk to anyone,” said India’s captain Virat Kohli at the post-match conference, when asked if he had had a word with pitch curator Pandurang Salgaonkar ahead of this first Test.
Away from the “pitch debacle” of the South Africa series in 2015—raging turners were the norm then—India have played on balanced pitches against both New Zealand and England this past home season. From Kanpur to Indore against the Black Caps, and from Rajkot to Chennai against the English, it was difficult to argue that India played on pitches helpful only to spinners.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there was no talk about pitches, or the toss. New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson joked about losing three tosses in a row; former English skipper Alastair Cook was less magnanimous. “We can all agree it was a good toss to win (India won the toss and batted first in the second Test). Anyone could see that. The first day was the best day to bat. You saw it was harder to score (afterwards),” he said after the Test in Visakhapatnam, which India won.
It was an odd comment. England had won the toss and batted first in the series-opening Rajkot Test. They scored 537 and 260-3 and put India under pressure for five days. Yet the English attack couldn’t force a victory on an even pitch.
The Visakhapatnam pitch helped bowlers as the game progressed. But it was England’s collapse in the first innings that cost them more than losing the toss, much like what happened to India in Pune. Furthermore, England won the toss in the third Test at Mohali and batted first, yet failed to capitalize on that advantage, losing within four days.
“You still got to play well even if you win a toss. The last time we were here (in 2013), we won four tosses and lost 0-4,” said Australian coach Darren Lehmann, after his first look at the Pune pitch.
“My view on the toss is that it should just go (be abolished) anyway (giving visiting sides option to choose whether to bat or bowl first), that’s the way I’ve always felt. Whether you’re here or in Australia, it doesn’t matter,” he added.
In the debate over pitches and home advantage, which is more important?
India’s performances have followed a well-rehearsed script whenever Kohli has won the toss and opted to bat—lots of runs on the board, and spinners taking wickets. In seven Tests against New Zealand and South Africa, India bowled first only once after winning the toss—in Bengaluru against the latter in November 2015. Against England, India won only one toss, at Visakhapatnam.
India won 10 of the 12 tests against New Zealand, South Africa and England.
But is this an India-only phenomenon? Going back to their 2008 tour here, Australia won seven out of 10 tosses, losing eight of those Tests. At home recently, against South Africa, Australia lost all three tosses and the three-Test series 1-2.
Was it because of the toss or because the Proteas were better in all departments than the hosts? Why didn’t Lehmann speak out then? In Adelaide, South Africa won the toss and decided to bat, yet Australia were able to pull one back and avoid a whitewash.
Over the course of the last season or so, debates about the toss have gained momentum. It was even abolished in the 2016 English County Championship—visiting teams had the chance to bowl first. If it does come into effect in Test cricket, there is no doubt visiting teams would want the chance to bat first in India. Yet, it will not guarantee victory, for either the home or visiting team.
“When you go to England, you have to negotiate the seaming ball. In Australia, you negotiate the bouncing ball, and when you come to India, you have to negotiate the turning ball. It adds to the character of Test cricket,” said Indian assistant coach Sanjay Bangar during the first Test.
India tripped on home turf in Pune because they played poorly, conceding a 155-run lead in the first innings on a pitch taking considerable turn. International Cricket Council match referee Chris Broad has already reported the pitch as poor. Did the visiting team suffer due to pitch conditions? No. They won the match within three days, after batting for five out of eight sessions, and scoring 545 runs in two innings.
In reply, the home team scored only 212 runs in two innings. Kohli’s side did not lose because of the toss, or the pitch, but because their batsmen didn’t have the wherewithal to counter the spin bowling of Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon.
“This Pune wicket was certainly more likely to suit the Indian players but it evened up the contest a lot more,” Smith said in reply to that question at the post-match conference. “So, it was up to them to prepare a wicket, and they prepared a wicket that actually played into our hands. It would be interesting to see what they come up with in Bengaluru (where the second Test starts from 4 March).”
At best then, the result of this Pune Test should put the pitch/toss debate on hold. Like Australia’s recent series against South Africa, it puts into focus the preparation and performance of the teams more than the conditions and situations on offer.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.
Turning pitches or no: a question without answers
The question that’s come up after Australia’s win in Pune is: Why did India risk a pitch of unpredictable bounce and turn for the first Test of a high-profile, four-match cricket series?
To lay out a strip that cricketer-turned-commentator Shane Warne described as “a day 8 pitch before the first ball has been bowled” meant, in retrospect, that the toss would be significant. So why did India take this chance after winning eight out of nine Tests in an undefeated home season till then?
India’s current situation takes us back to the 2004 series against the same opposition, and the only one of two home Test series that the subcontinent giants have lost in the last dozen years—the other being the 1-2 loss to England in 2012-13.
In 2004, Australia went 1-0 up in the four-match series in Bengaluru in a Test that will be remembered for Michael Clarke’s century on debut. The 217-run win gave them a confidence boost and also helped set up their first Test series win on Indian soil after a gap of 35 years.
The exciting second Test in Chennai ended in a draw after rain washed out the final day’s play with India on 19 without loss—chasing 229 for victory.
When one expected the visitors to be given a turning track for the possibly decisive third Test in Nagpur (in those days, a turning track would have been to India’s advantage; Pune proves that’s no longer the case), the Vidarbha Cricket Association provided a green top that would help pace bowlers. Skipper Sourav Ganguly pulled out on the morning of the match, and Australian captain Adam Gilchrist and his team scripted their own piece of history by conquering the “final frontier”—a series win in India.
Even as the Nagpur pitch became the subject of a national debate, in the next Test, Mumbai provided one that jumped and turned. India won the low-scoring match by 13 runs in under three days.
Playing strokes on that pitch was akin to playing Russian roulette. Clarke, a part-time left-arm spinner, took six wickets for nine runs in 6.2 overs in the second innings.
Australia played the conditions better in Pune—the result of the first Test match, it would seem, was decided by that very simple cliche.
By Sanjay Rajan