On their last Test tour of India, England were hammered 4-0 in a five-match series, yet there was nary a murmur of protestation. Not even the master excuse-seekers in Old Blighty could unearth cause for complaint. England won four of five tosses, touched 400 in the first innings thrice, their lowest first-innings score came in the one game where Alastair Cook called wrong at the coin-toss – the second Test in Mohali, where they were bowled out for 255.
All but one of those five matches were played on ‘proper’ cricket surfaces – tracks where the ball came evenly on to the bat for the first three or so days before natural wear-and-tear precipitated frenetic passages of play typical of the sub-continent on the fourth and, especially, the fifth days. England were comprehensively outplayed, India’s overwhelming superiority manifesting itself in innings wins in the last two games despite England amassing first-innings totals of 400 and 477 in Mumbai and Chennai respectively.
What a difference this series has been. Even during the first Test in Chennai, it was evident that ‘true’ surfaces would be at a premium. True, that last series was played in November-December (2016); February is infinitely hotter in most parts of the country and drier decks are an almost natural offshoot, but surely, India didn’t need to stretch home advantage this far?
Neither of the Chennai pitches was in the ‘minefield’ category. If anything, the surface for the first Test started off as a sleeping beauty, a characteristic it retained for two days and facilitated England stacking up an intimidating 578, enough to carve out a massive victory. Perhaps, it was the skewed influence of the toss in that encounter which convinced the think-tank to press for less balanced tracks where, it felt, the toss wouldn’t be significant enough to prevent India from showcasing their might.
The immediate impact of Joe Root’s masterpiece in the 227-victory was evident in the next Test at Chepauk, when the ball turned from the first session, and dramatic puffs of dust exploded off the track whenever the ball disturbed the surface. The black soil window-dressing to the red-soil base facilitated turn at pace; Rohit Sharma’s first-day magnificence and a sparkling third-innings century from R Ashwin emphatically put the surface in perspective, however. If one had the nous, the patience and the skills, run-making wasn’t impossible.
Motera pitch for the 3rd Test match, as expected it's been shaved off now. Probably a final shave off just before the match. pic.twitter.com/ZyEI1dmAZp
— Mufaddal Vohra (@mufaddal_vohra) February 20, 2021
The jury will remain divided on how to class the 22-yard strip for the first Test at world cricket’s grandest venue, the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, though the universal view is that it was a poor advertisement for Test cricket. Those in England’s corner will condemn it as unfit for Test cricket, given 30 wickets fell in less than six sessions and the visitors were at the receiving end of a ten-wicket drubbing. India’s supporters, buoyed by the result more than anything else, will point to England’s diffidence against the non-turning ball – 21 of the 30 wickets in the game fell to deliveries that went on with the arm – for their abject capitulation.
There is merit in both arguments. Even in an imperfect world, the ideal Test pitch is expected to last at least four days, bringing all facets of the glorious game into play – high-class batting, quality seam and swing bowling, and tantalising spin. In Motera, celebrated pacers were reduced to bit players. Between them, James Anderson and Stuart Broad have 1,128 Test wickets; for the first time in 120 matches together, both went wicketless. Significantly, neither this pair, nor the irrepressible Jofra Archer, were given even a token bowl during India’s modest chase of 49. This, despite the fact that England went in with only one specialist spinner, Jack Leach, a clear indication that they had totally misread the pitch.
India retained their three-spinner combination. Between them, 100-Test veteran Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah sent down 11 first-innings overs out of a grand total of 79.2 overs, for one wicket. The spinners – Axar Patel, Ashwin and Washington Sundar – accounted for the remaining 19 scalps. The skew could not be more pronounced.
And that’s not even factoring in the status of this game – a pink-ball, day-night Test where spinners are largely expected to don the same hat that the pacers did this time around, of being the unglamorous support cast. Staggering, really, when you think of it. Under lights, in the final session, the pink ball has generally been a pacer’s ally and a batsman’s nightmare, whooping as it is around corners or gathering alarming lateral movement. Not this time around. After all, there was only one meaningful night session, which India’s batsmen negotiated quite competently on night one.
Which brings us to the million-dollar question. Do India honestly believe they can’t win any other way against this England side? That, if they don’t ‘prepare’ - for want of another word - such tracks, their chances of making the World Test Championship Final would go up in smoke? Were they so taken in by Root’s mastery in Chennai 1.0 that they lost faith in their abilities on true tracks? What does it say of their confidence in Ishant and Bumrah, and Mohammed Siraj and Umesh Yadav, if they believe Root is infallible except against high-class spin on a deck where the ball rotates like a top from the off?
This, mind, is the same India who, a little over six weeks back, bucked the odds and pulled off a dramatic 2-1 triumph in Australia with half their first-choice personnel missing. The same India which, since the middle of 2016, has erected a solid protective armour at home, pierced only by their inability to handle Steve O’Keefe on a raging turner in Pune in February 2017 when they were crushed by 333 runs. The same India which boasts, and isn’t chary of boasting, one of the best pace attacks going. The same India which claims it treats every ‘away’ outing as a ‘home’ fixture, which insists it takes such uncontrollables as the pitch and the conditions out of their thinking.
One can continue to point to inept technique and attitude towards spin to wish away England’s twin debacles of 112 and 81 – India only fared marginally better in piecing together 145, hopefully decisively exploding the long-prevalent myth that they are still among the finest players of spin – but there’s no denying that this was an apology of a track for a five-day contest. The barren, arid strip of land in the otherwise lush green ocean of the outfield was as much an aberration as a piece of the surface of the moon infesting the Garden of Eden.
Test cricket is meant to be a near-equal battle between bat and ball, with the edge slightly towards the ball to facilitate fascinating and meaningful contests that examine skill, more than anything else. That necessarily calls for playing surfaces from which the ball doesn’t explode disproportionately – had what happened on day two in Motera unfolded on day four, it would have been construed as par for the course – or jag around generously, like it did when India were in New Zealand in 2002-03.
It’s no secret that the art of tackling quality spin on responsive tracks is fast hurtling towards extinction. Even accounting for that, Motera was a painful reminder of the perils of stretching home advantage to the hilt, and beyond. A Rs 700 crore stadium must perforce house a better track. Indian cricket can do better, cricket deserves better. A whole lot better.
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