On day five of the third Test in Ranchi, needing eight wickets for victory, India only managed to dismiss four Australian batsmen. It was a keen departure from the first two Tests, where play never ventured into a fifth day. Twenty wickets fell in less than three days in Pune; it was four days in Bengaluru.
‘Poor’ and ‘below average’ said the reports for those two matches, respectively. It is tough to see the Ranchi pitch get a similar rating. Which one is better for Test cricket though? One that produces a draw after five days of first-gear grinding, or a wicket that guarantees results, irrespective of whether the ball seams/swings throughout or turns from the word go?
This, though, is not about the debate over pitches in Test cricket. Instead, it is about the impact of different wickets in this series, on the psyche of those watching, or indeed covering, the game. There was a lot of hullabaloo before every match, reaching a crescendo as the series travelled from Pune to Ranchi. ‘Three-day Test, three-day Test, three-day Test’, you can almost hear the constant hyperbole in the distance now that cricket has fallen silent again for three days until Dharamsala. What is in store for this week?
It makes for additional wonderment, if the Indian team also bought into this exaggeration about pitches, particularly the ones in Bengaluru and Ranchi. Let it be said here that unlike the series against West Indies, New Zealand and England, Virat Kohli’s team selection has gone a bit awry in all three Tests against Australia so far.
Let us roll back time. In July-August (2016), India were travelling across the Caribbean, and they played a Test series across different conditions from Antigua to Jamaica to St Lucia (Trinidad being a washout). There was more bounce in the first Test, the second boasted of initial movement and then some slow turn, while the third had a pitch that aided fast bowlers throughout.
Kohli opted for five bowlers throughout those three Tests, but used them differently. First, it was the pairing of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav that exploited bounce. Then, Ishant Sharma played the lead role in Kingston, and finally, Bhuvneshwar Kumar stepped in for a solitary match-winning performance. It was similarly seen against New Zealand as well, when Kumar stepped in just for the second Test in Kolkata as well, all in a bid to exploit conditions on offer.
The element of general opinion on pitches and conditions, and the ensuing debate, was missing, perhaps owing to the score-line. With the arrival of England, the narrative slowly changed.
Alastair Cook won the toss in Rajkot, yet his side couldn’t close out victory in five days. Suddenly, the pitch for the Visakhapatnam Test was in spotlight. When England lost there, toss became the hot topic of the month. Ironically, they won the toss in Mohali, Mumbai and Chennai, yet managed to lose in spectacular fashion. Reason — Kohli and the Indian team management didn’t kow-tow to what was being said, or debated, about pitch or toss.
“The cheer from the English fans when they won the toss spurred us on. I mean the game was still to be played,” said Kohli, after India won in Mohali. One of the keen changes India had made was in dropping Amit Mishra, and bringing in Jayant Yadav in the fifth bowler’s role. The management identified the need to balance the need for a back-up spinner as well as someone who could bulk up the lower order. Mishra, as the third spinner, was losing confidence by the over, and the team needed fresh blood’s consistent inspiration.
It proved to be an inspired change, as seen in all three Tests that Jayant played against England. This move was in conjugation with an earlier change in batting lineup when the home season had begun. The team management incorporated Rohit Sharma into the eleven against New Zealand, and relied on a four-bowler attack. Against England, a stronger opponent and flatter pitches, they made the choice to go win with five bowlers. The underlying point herein is that until this juncture in the home season, the Indian team management read conditions well, and made brave calls, backing their choices to the hilt as it all paid off.
So what has changed in this series? Perhaps it is in reading the conditions wrong, not so much the situation.
Consider each one of the three Tests. In Pune, on a pitch that turned square and broke down from ball one, there was never the need for a fifth bowler. Instead, an extra batsman might have come in handy. India erred in picking Jayant over Karun Nair.
Then, they over-compensated for this move in the second Test. For much of the four days in Bengaluru, India were behind Australia and it was only the Cheteshwar Pujara-Ajinkya Rahane partnership late on day three that swung momentum in their favour. While the tactic to play six batsmen proved to be right in the end, it was more a reaction to the massive 333-run defeat in the first Test than a sure-shot strategy to surprise Australia, like Kohli had promised in the pre-match conference.
Ranchi then left everyone surprised with the outcome of the wicket over five days. Nobody, whether in the Australian or Indian camps, could predict the nature or indeed the degradation of this pitch. Unable to force a win, you could easily identify the need for a fifth bowler here, perhaps most of all in the three Tests thus far, certainly more than Pune. Maybe they could have included Kuldeep Yadav, still awaiting his Test debut, if not a second off=spinner.
Yet, the exaggeration over the ‘look’ of this Ranchi pitch was enough to hoodwink the Indian team management into playing an extra batsman instead. It is not to say that India got their tactics wrong, more likely they did not have enough wares in a four-bowler attack to force a result on the placid day five wicket.
In Dharamsala then, can Kohli — and the Indian team management — avoid being sucked into the narrative?