When Dinesh Chandimal won the toss and opted to bat first was he calling Virat Kohli’s bluff or did he and his coach come to the battle armed with their own bag of tricks?
On the eve of the second Test, Kohli had talked the talk, elaborating on how his team had to improvise on-the-fly, given the lack of time to prepare for the tough South African tour. Hence, he had requested for fast bowler-friendly ‘green tops’ for the next two Tests.
“This would help us adapt faster to South African conditions, especially as we have no time to conventionally prepare for the tour,” he had told the media, which unquestioningly bought the story hook, line and sinker.
And why not? India had rolled out a grass pitch which had plenty of moisture in it at Eden Gardens and it almost brought them to their knees. But it helped hone the skills of a couple of batsmen and the pace bowlers, which Kohli held was just what was required as preparation for South Africa.
He said there would be more of the same at Nagpur as the team wanted to challenge itself.
Unfortunately, after the ridiculous episode involving Pune curator Pandurang Salgaokar, the media had shot itself in the foot. It could not get curators to freely talk and discuss pitch conditions, which, otherwise, would have been the norm.
Curators did not want to get into any issues after the Pune farce and even if they spoke, did so in general terms, fearful that it would be twisted and held against them.
Under the circumstances, wild stories came out on how the pitch would be seamer-friendly. The Ranji Trophy scores of the previous match on this pitch (Chhattisgarh 489 vs Jharkhand 435) where the pacy Umesh Yadav played, was overlooked.
To darken the plot, Kohli said that Tamil Nadu cricketer Vijay Shankar, who had a singularly average record (32 matches, 27 wickets, two four-wicket hauls and a mere five centuries) was being groomed as a shadow all-rounder for Hardik Pandya. Many speculated that he would be the fourth seamer in the Indian playing eleven.
Let alone fourth seamer, Kohli did not even field a third medium pacer on a pitch he said would prepare them for South Africa. On the other hand, he strengthened the batting, thereby abandoning his five-bowler strategy. The four preferred bowlers fell into two pacers, two spinners combination.
Was Kohli indulging in a bit of mind games to sidetrack the Sri Lankans?
In any case, they probably were up to it as they know more than a thing or two about sucking moisture out of a pitch.
One preview report mentioned that the curator had spread a thick cloth over the pitch and used a roller on top of it. This is usually done to absorb sub-soil moisture and get the pitch to dry as quickly as possible. The grass, thus, was a facade.
Chandimal was on the ball quickly enough. He won the toss and unhesitatingly opted to bat first, thereby ensuring that his team would not bat in the fourth innings.
The fact that his plans went awry because of inept batting is a different matter altogether. The simple truth was that there was nothing on offer for the fast bowlers.
The pitch behaved as normally as a first day pitch would. There was neither unusual swing, nor an iota of seam movement for the fast bowlers. But for the adventurous opener Sadeera Samarawickrama poking at a wide Ishant Sharma delivery the opening hour would have been a fruitless one for India.
Skipper Kohli, wise to the pitch’s offering, had just two slips and a gully for his fast bowlers early in the Test. This was in sharp contrast to four slips and a gully at Kolkata.
It is possible that both teams expect the pitch to crumble very quickly. This probably explains Sri Lanka’s haste to bat first and try and rattle quick runs when the deck was at its best. They must have wanted to unleash their star spinner Rangana Herath on a dicey fourth-innings track.
Kohli too bought himself substantial insurance by including an extra batsman in Rohit Sharma at the expense of paceman Mohammed Shami. This would ensure that his team batted deep, with Ravindra Jadeja expected to come in at number nine.
Thus, as can be surmised from choice of playing eleven and strategies, all the talk of replicating South African conditions was just a smokescreen. For Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri it seems like winning is not everything: It is the only thing.