My first memory of India getting owned on home turf is from 1994 against West Indies at Mohali. Back then, Mohali had the kind of pitch where West Indies could go in with an all-seam attack. In the fourth innings, after Manoj Prabhakar was retired hurt off a snorter from Courtney Walsh, West Indies dismissed the rest of Indian batsmen for 114 to level the series. Walsh and Kenny Benjamin bowled unchanged for 35 overs, the cool December weather of Punjab helping their cause.
The Mohali pitch had built a reputation through the 90s for being a happy hunting ground for fast bowlers with its bounce and carry. In 1999, New Zealand fast bowlers led by Dion Nash used the overhead conditions and swing that was on offer to dismiss India for 83 in their first innings.
Two decades later, Mohali pitch has become slow and sluggish. You still hear TV commentators talking about the reputation of Mohali pitch at times based on old myths, but any batting collapses on this pitch can now be engineered by spinners only, as had happened in the Test match against South Africa in 2015, when both visitors and hosts struggled on this pitch. The Test against England in 2016 brought back some old memories when Mohammad Shami could manage to extract some pace and bounce but it was a far cry from the 1990s Mohali days.
Mohali’s tale is the story of many pitches in India. Chepauk and Wankhede also had a reputation once of providing good carry to fast bowlers at least early on in a Test match. When a venue loses character, it loses its charm.
Perhaps no other sport has so much time for discussion on the playing turf. The way a good cricket pitch changes character assisting fast bowlers, batsmen, spinners at different phases during five days is nothing short of mad science. Someday TV broadcasters may employ a team of geologists, microbiologists, etc conducting experiments on soil composition during pitch report for the benefit of those geeky cricket fans to tell precisely how it will behave over five days.
Despite pitch holding such a pivotal position in cricket’s saga, BCCI hasn’t been able to properly preserve and nurture them. Surely, a good chunk of the riches they have accumulated over the past two decades should have gone into some sort of a pitch fund to look after cricket’s holy soil.
The point of playing a five-match Test series is to test the teams across different conditions. If each venue provides a different “test” of abilities, it keeps both the teams as well as the spectators honest and interested at all times. A touring team would have a better chance of making a comeback, if it knows that during the course of a Test series it will encounter a venue that may suit its style more.
One of the reasons for so many whitewashes in world cricket is having almost similar pitches in all the matches of a Test series. To add insult to injury, any practice matches will be played on a pitch that will have no similarity to the one that visitors will encounter in Test matches. The CCI pitch where Australia played India A was at best a remedy for tourists’ homesickness and gave no “practice” for the Test series.
It’s a bit of a shame that home boards have become so obsessed about Test series whitewashes that a touring team had to take a detour to Dubai to get real practice for Indian conditions. We all want to see a closely-fought series, and helping visitors prepare better against the home team is a basic courtesy that cricket boards must extend to the sport and its stakeholders.
This is not to say that BCCI is the only board that hasn’t done justice to its pitches and its tourists. Sydney Cricket Ground always had something in it for the spinners, but on India’s last couple of tours to Australia, SCG hasn’t distinguished itself from any other Australian pitch. Indian teams on tour have routinely played practice matches on feather beds before playing Test matches on seamers’ paradise.
The deeper problem with the Indian pitches starts at the domestic level. Despite having good intentions at times, BCCI hasn’t had a clear policy or a plan in place to look after its pitches. In 2011, all curators were advised to leave at least four inches of grass on all the pitches for domestic games in a bid to improve India’s record on overseas pitches. This gross neglect of spinners led to an almost empty spin bowling bench and an overall decline in India’s batting ability against spin.
Since then BCCI has tried many experiments to curb down the practice of state boards doctoring pitches to suit their teams. From pitch committees to playing matches at neutral venues, there is a new policy for every season.
After the Pune pitch debacle, pitch curator Pandurang Salgaoncar accused BCCI pitch committee of reducing him to a mere spectator and taking over pitch preparation for the Test. A curator who looks after the pitch throughout the year is the best person to oversee its preparation for a Test match.
Giving autonomy to pitch curator will also establish a clear chain of responsibility in case of a debacle. There will be times when pitch preparation will suffer due to variations in weather and rains but beyond that it should be curator’s responsibility and accountability to look after the pitch and preserve its nature.
There is beauty in variety. As Forrest Gump’s Mama said, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get". The nature of pitches across a Test-playing nation shouldn't be similar. Each one full of unique surprises.