Variable bounce, sharp turn, the ball kicking up puffs of dust, and spinners targeting the foot marks all day long. This is how pitches in India typically are. These are surfaces that test a batsman's skills to the hilt, for the examination in the long form version of the game does not merely comprise scoring with cross-batted swipes that may pay off in limited over formats, but actually surviving under difficult conditions and grinding out an innings, especially as the pitch starts to deteriorate with the passage of play. These are playing conditions that teams from outside the subcontinent dread.
Now, when all that is well-known, why is there a ruckus almost every time the ball dominates the bat? Why is there a clamour to portray a pitch as 'poor' every time a match doesn't run its full course? Typically on 'poor' pitches that are excessively unkind to the batsmen, both teams would come a cropper in terms of putting up runs on the board.
The Pune pitch was hardly so, nor was the one in Bengaluru. Yes, India were bowled out for 105 and 107 in Pune, but wasn't it the same pitch that saw Australian captain Steve Smith score a century. What he displayed was temperament, a will to graft when going was tough, playing shots calibrated to the surface, for instance playing inside the line of the ball, and using the sweep to good effect. The bowlers, led by Steve O'Keefe bowled an accurate line and length and knew exactly how much turn, or indeed the lack of it, could get them wickets. It was a simple case of Australia using the pitch conditions better than the hosts. Had the pitch been 'poor', it would have been 'poor' for both teams.
Bengaluru saw a classic turning of the tables and a reversal of roles, with India shooting the visitors out for a paltry total in the fourth innings. Yes, the pitch did play its part, and while Matt Renshaw was done in by the extra bounce, the lack of it was Steve Smith's undoing. This was not after Nathan Lyon had a field day in India's first innings, claiming 8/50 - the best by an overseas player in India. The cracks on the Chinnaswamy pitch looked a bit ominous all through the match.
Neither the Pune or Bengaluru Test match ran its full course and the inevitable question has been: did the pitches in those two venues start playing too many tricks too often? Inevitably, it is also being asked what the pitch would be like in Ranchi. The curiosity is high, especially considering that the venue would be hosting its first ever Test.
The Ranchi pitch has had a reputation for offering grip and turn. That, coupled with the relatively big size of the JSCA stadium, make the spinners a real threat. The ground is a fairly new entrant as far as hosting international matches is concerned, having hosted the first in 2013 - the third ODI of the series between India and England. In the four ODIs that have been played on the ground so far, the aggregate run rate has not even once gone more than six runs per over.
When India faced New Zealand last year in the fourth ODI of the series, the slowness of the pitch and the uneven carry had raised doubts on how successful it would be as a Test venue. It was not exactly a match in which wickets fell in a heap, but the scores were at best, modest. New Zealand put up a total of 260 in their allotted 50 overs, going at a touch over five runs an over, and India fell short by 19 runs, scoring their runs at a rate of even less than five runs an over. The scores were very 1990-ish, certainly not enough in this day and age of T20 cricket. The aggregate run rate in the first-ever international match on the Ranchi surface had been a tepid 4.42.
This can offer pointers to how the Ranchi pitch may behave in the upcoming Test between India and Australia, though it may not exactly resemble the ones in the earlier matches. However, every ground has a character of its own, and it would not be a surprise if what is dished out at Ranchi is a typical subcontinent pitch complete with all its characteristics.
The key for batsmen on such a wicket would be application and the will to spend time in the middle. It would need truckloads of patience and the ability to graft, more than playing strokes on the up. Remember the way Hashim Amla and AB de Viliers, both fine stroke-makers, curbed their instincts to graft, graft and graft a bit more in Tests against India in 2015, on pitches that could very well pass off as snake pits? They could not save their team in the end from a 0-3 thrashing, but showed amply what you need to do on such challenging surfaces.
What India would take heart from, is the fact that, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have shown that it is not impossible to survive on the kind of pitches that are on show. After a fine 90 in the first innings in Bengaluru, Rahul said that it was "by far the most difficult" wicket that he has had to play on in Tests. "The wicket was a bit sticky in the morning compared to the other two sessions. The ball was holding on to the wicket. It was two-paced a little bit, that's why I was finding it difficult to get into position," said Rahul. But what he said after that was the most important. "But I was enjoying the challenge," the Indian opener said, and that is really what you need to succeed on wickets like the ones in Bengaluru and Pune, and indeed what could be on offer in Ranchi.
What would keep India worried, however, are the form of their talisman Virat Kohli and the lack of meaningful contribution from the lower middle order - both of which had added considerably to India's Test domination of late. But Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja taking bucketful of wickets in Bengaluru after a moderate outing by their standards in Pune would give the hosts a lot a confidence.
The four-match Test series between two of the finest teams has wonderfully been set up with India's victory in Bengaluru. The teams are locked 1-1 and the team winning in Ranchi would ensure that they would be undefeated in the series. It will also put them in a state of mind from where they could press for an outright win as they head to Dharamshala. A draw in Ranchi, given the reputation of the ground, looks to be less of a possibility, but if it happens, India will have to win in Dharamsala to wrest the Border-Gavaskar Trophy from the grasp of Steve Smith and Co. But even if it is a draw in Ranchi, the team winning more sessions would have a distinct advantage in terms of confidence heading to the last Test.
The inaugural Test at Ranchi's JSCA stadium promises, therefore, to be a gripping affair, and certainly one that the connoisseurs would cherish. If the pitch is of the nature as expected, it will add to the drama.