Suranga Lakmal is on the wrong side of 30. In his career of 39 Tests he had a mere 88 wickets, i.e. just over two wickets per Test. But that hardly mattered in his 40th Test, where on a fresh, grassy Eden Gardens pitch, the medium-pace bowler had the Indian batsmen hopping around in sheer panic and discomfort.
India’s awful batting brought back painful memories of Nagpur 2004 and Ahmedabad 2008 when their erstwhile superstars disintegrated on pitches conducive to fast bowling.
Many of the protagonists of that Indo-Australia Test were present in different capacities at the Eden Gardens on Thursday. The acrimony and bitterness of that Nagpur Test all those years ago would not be lost on them.
Firstly, there was Mathew Hayden sitting in the commentary box trying to make sense of the action to Indian television viewers. But in his autobiography ‘Standing My Ground’, he had a different tale to relate about Cricket Association of Bengal’s president Sourav Ganguly and his approach that day. He believed that the grass on the Nagpur pitch had led to the sudden withdrawal of skipper Ganguly from the Test.
“The curator ignored pleas to shave the deck and left a healthy covering of grass. It reminded me of Gabba (Brisbane). To have that sort of wicket for the deciding Test of an away series —particularly in India — was the most pleasant surprise imaginable," Hayden wrote.
"When Ganguly and Harbhajan went out to see the deck a couple of days before the game, they looked like farmers inspecting crops after a hail storm. We predicted neither would play, and they did not. Ganguly withdrew with a leg-muscle injury that flared-up suddenly, and Harbhajan had an even more sudden dose of food poisoning. We put their ailments down to acute cases of 'greentrackitis', where you develop a severe intolerance to green wickets...” he wrote in scathing terms in his book.
Others in the Nagpur Test that India lost by a whopping margin of 342 runs were Akash Chopra, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Murali Karthik, Ajit Agarkar. They are all doing television or media related work for this Test. Of course, Ganguly himself is the big boss at Eden Gardens.
The famed Indian batting line-up, that included Tendulkar and skipper Rahul Dravid, batted second, but was still unable to handle the pace of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Micheal Kasprowicz on that grassy pitch.
Thus Ganguly, who knows a thing or two about green pitches, could have asked his curator to shave off as much grass as possible for the Test against Sri Lanka. But that would have failed to put his committee’s choice of coach, Ravi Shastri under the cosh ahead of the South Africa tour!
Talking of South Africa, their battery of fast bowlers had blown away India on another green top in Ahmedabad in 2008. India were all out for a miserable 76 in the first innings, with Ganguly making 0, Dravid 3, Laxman 3 and Sehwag 6.
Unfortunately, India’s collapse against Lakmal on Thursday, where they lost three wickets for 17 runs, served as a reminder of those dark days when local administering of the game was as unsatisfactory as the home team batting on a green top.
Having said that, it must be stated that it is far too early to press the panic button even in this Test. Lanka do not have fast bowlers of the calibre of McGrath or Dale Steyn, though with assistance from a pitch like this even a Lakmal would seem a terrifying proposition.
Of course batting on this strip would be a challenge even for Lanka’s batsmen, especially as India have a better set of fast bowlers in Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami.
The shenanigans of local administrators apart, India must also wonder at the approach of Shikhar Dhawan. This was the first day of the first Test when the opening batsman was expected to weather the new ball on a green top. Yet Dhawan attempted the ugliest of shots for an opening batsman at the start of a Test match, and was bowled.
It was a disastrous stroke and would have horrified and angered skipper Virat Kohli no end. In fact the dismissal would have triggered memories of Gabba 2014 when Dhawan did not go out to bat on the fourth morning owing to a last minute injury sustained in the nets. There was an ugly episode that morning which, if anything, showed Indian cricket in extremely poor light.
Meanwhile Dhawan did nothing to enhance his reputation on Thursday by playing that atrocious shot at Lakmal. It was hardly the sort of stroke that would have inspired confidence in his ability to tackle the South African pacers on their bouncy tracks. His terrible approach to the task should set the team thinking, irrespective of the quantum of runs Dhawan makes in the rest of this series.
In the context of the forthcoming tour of South Africa, Thursday’s showing is an early wake-up call for selectors, coach and captain. How well and promptly they respond to it will have a bearing on Indian cricket’s fortunes in the coming days.