The Nagpur pitch turned out to be anti-national.
On a night when India were expected to canter to an easy win, after their bowlers and fielders had restricted New Zealand to a paltry 126 in their opening encounter of the T-20 World Cup on Tuesday, the Nagpur strip betrayed the favourites, teaching them, as Brian Lara quipped on Twitter, a bitter lesson.
— Brian Lara (@BrianLara) March 15, 2016
When you leave cobras on a pitch, they come back to bite you. It is a lesson the Indian team should have learnt in December 2015. Back then, when India played South Africa at Nagpur, the pitch started turning square from day one, giving India victory in three sweat-free days.
So pathetic was the pitch that in his report, ICC match referee Jeff Crowe had called it poor. But, the Indian team management, smug after the facile victory, refused to see the serpents in it.
"Which rule tells me that a ball can’t turn on day one? Where does it tell me in the rulebook it can only swing and seam?” team director Ravi Shastri reacted to the criticism. Let's hope, Shastri then added, we get a similar pitch in Delhi (the venue of the next game against South Africa in that series).
After the opening game of the premier T20I event, only a really brave team director would want a pitch similar to Nagpur's in the next game against Pakistan at the Eden Gardens.
The best pitches in our part of the cricketing world, especially during the dry weather, are those with a bit of grass that is later rolled in. On such tracks, the ball doesn't seam, swing or spin, making life easy for the kind of batsmen we have.
The Nagpur pitch, in contrast, was absolutely dry. It seemed cows from a nearby shelter had been left to graze on it for a fortnight before the match, leaving not a blade of grass behind. That it had 'spinner's paradise' written all over it was evident even to the New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, who, in a decision that looked silly at the beginning but turned out to be the sign of a pure genius, dumped two of his best fast bowlers — Trent Boult and Tim Southee — for two relatively unknown spinners.
By the time the Kiwi spinners came on to bowl, most of the Indian supporters were already half-way into their celebratory party, convinced that victory was just a formality after the Kiwis had been restricted to a benign total.
Alarm bells didn't ring when Shikhar Dhawan attempted a sweep, got hit on the pad and started running for a single, only to be stopped by the umpire's raised finger. But, it was to be the beginning of what is a rare sight in T20, especially on Indian pitches: A procession of batsmen. What we Indians call Tu-Chal-Main-Aaya syndrome.
Rohit Sharma danced out of the crease, got beaten by the flight, was stumped. Suresh Raina closed the face of the bat too early and lobbed the ball gently towards midwicket, a shot whose slightly different variations were to later claim Yuvraj Singh and Ravindra Jadeja.
And, when Virat Kohli tried to cut a ball that pitched on the off stump and spun almost a yard, taking the inevitable edge of the bat and landing in Luke Ronchi's gloves, the Nagpur crowd stopped chanting "Ganpati Bappa Morya".
MS Dhoni hung around for a while. But, by that time the ball was either landing on the middle stump and darting towards the first slip, or darting from outside the off-stump towards the leg slip. Those expecting a miracle from Dhoni would have been better off giving him option of spending 14 days in a samadhi — at least he could have taken courage from recent precedence. After hitting a six, when eight more of the sort were needed, he too perished.
For New Zealand, who began the game with a tribute to him, the victory was a sweet reminder of what Martin Crowe had achieved at the 1992 World Cup.
Back then, in the first match of the World Cup against favourites Australia, Crowe had dumped his fast bowlers — just like Williamson in Nagpur — to open the bowling attack with spinner Dipak Patel. His side went on to win the game, humbling co-hosts Australia, whose captain Allan Border called the loss a ''bolt from the blue".
Now that a similar bolt has struck the Men in Blue, they have got to be careful. Their next match is against the team that won the 1992 World Cup.
On any other occasion, playing Pakistan on a turning track would have been a comforting option for India. The way Mohammad Amir is bowling after his return from a five-year ban for spot-fixing, Ravi Shastri would have taken a dry, dusty track with both hands.
But, not after Nagpur. One more anti-national pitch — remember the 1996 semi-final at Eden Gardens against Sri Lanka? — and the Indian patriot's worst nightmare could just come true: India being knocked out in the opening round of a World Cup, in India, by Pakistan.