In his weekly column, Wisden India’s editor-in-chief Dileep Premachandran takes a look at the sporting scene in India, with a heavy focus on the country’s No 1 sport, cricket.
Cricket has been played internationally for 139 years, and you still will not find any consensus on what constitutes a ‘sporting’ pitch.
That is especially true in the shorter formats, where the trend in recent seasons has been to produce surfaces so placid that bowlers find themselves reduced to extras on a vast entertainment set. So, when you get a pitch like the one where New Zealand thrashed India in the opening match of the Super 10s, the reactions tend to span two extremes.
Having restricted New Zealand to 126, India found the ball turning nearly square when it was their turn to bat. Nathan McCullum, Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi ran rings around a feted line-up, leading the likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Sunil Gavaskar to call India’s batting ‘inept’.
Others saw the funny side. Ben Stokes, the England all-rounder, tweeted: “The astro-turf pitch with cigarette burns on a length at my old school was better than that wicket.”
The one thing that almost everyone agrees on is that a pitch loaded in favour of one type of player – whether that is spinners, pace bowlers or batsmen – can bridge the gap between two sides that are not necessarily equals.
India know that better than most. Some of their most celebrated overseas victories have come in conditions where they were expected to struggle.
At The Wanderers in Johannesburg in 2006, Mickey Arthur, then South Africa’s coach, stopped just short of licking his lips before the Test match. He spoke at length about the ‘pace and bounce’ that would be on offer, against a team the Proteas had just routed 4-0 in the ODI series.
As it turned out, India won by 123 runs, with South Africa skittled for 84 in their first innings. On a less favourable surface, India’s bowlers might have struggled to contain a powerful batting unit. But with overcast conditions aiding swing, and the pitch itself offering considerable seam movement, it was Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan that ran riot.
In July 2007, in seam-friendly conditions at Trent Bridge, it was India that prevailed, with an irate Zaheer Khan – jellybeans scattered near the crease as he batted didn’t tickle his funny bone – taking 9 for 134.
A few months later, with India 2-0 down in the series and Zaheer injured, Australia went for four pacers on a Perth pitch that still had a fearsome reputation. Shaun Tait, ‘The Wild Thing’ with his awkward slingshot action and sheer pace, was expected to give India’s batsmen headaches.
As it turned out, Tait did not get the ball until just before lunch, and his 21 overs in the match did not unduly discomfit an India team that won by 72 runs. Again, in conditions that were helpful, it was RP Singh, Irfan Pathan and Ishant Sharma that gave Australia a working over.
India, too, have been guilty of playing Russian roulette with the conditions. The pitch prepared against England at the Wankhede in November 2012 spun prodigiously from Day 1. But Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook made majestic hundreds, and the spin duo of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar comfortably outbowled their India counterparts as England prevailed by 10 wickets.
New Zealand, too, have been the beneficiaries of the curators’ largesse. In November 1988, again at the Wankhede, John Bracewell, who averaged 35.8 over his career, took six for 51 with his off-spin to send India tumbling to a 136-run defeat.
In Nagpur, in conditions that were supposed to be perfectly suited to them, India’s frontline spinners struggled against New Zealand’s aggressive approach.
It was Suresh Raina’s part-time off-spin that turned out to be the most effective option, and New Zealand’s trio then added to the sense of a plan gone badly awry with beautifully controlled bowling on a surface that had started to detonate.
India had won 10 of 11 Twenty20 matches in the build-up to the tournament, in all manner of conditions. But by trying to get conditions in their favour in Nagpur, they have left themselves with almost no margin for error in the games ahead.
Kohli and Amir – a tale of two prodigies
It was the seventh 50-over match for both. Virat Kohli was 20, Mohammed Amir just 17. That day, in an ICC Champions Trophy match at Centurion in South Africa, Kohli caught Amir at mid-on, but it was the younger man who would end the day smiling, taking the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar as Pakistan won by 54 runs.
By then, Amir had already won the World Twenty20 with Pakistan. Kohli was not yet a regular in the India line-up.
Fast forward six-and-a-half years though, and one man is a global superstar. The other, Amir, is feeling his way back after a five-year ban.
It was always going to be intriguing to see how other cricketers reacted to Amir when he returned to the fray after the spot-fixing ban. Would there be snide remarks and cruel sledges, especially when playing India?
There certainly were not from Kohli’s side.
“I am very happy to see Amir back in action,” he said after India had beaten Pakistan at last month’s Asia Cup. “He understood his mistake and has corrected himself and come back. He has always been an outstanding bowler, a world-class bowler.”
Amir had apparently requested a bat from him in Dhaka, and on Friday, at practice before the India-Pakistan match at Eden Gardens, Kohli handed a willow over.
There were also big smiles and a handshake with Shahid Afridi, as the players continued to exhibit far more maturity than many TV anchors, journalists and fans that reduce this fascinating rivalry to tired cliches about war and conflict.
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