That was a very bad wicket. This wicket is very good in comparison,” Ravindra Jadeja, man of the match in the first Test match between India and South Africa in Mohali, candidly admitted in the post-match briefing. He was replying to a question comparing the Mohali pitch with the Rajkot wicket that had raised quite a few eyebrows. Jadeja ruled Rajkot this Ranji season. In four matches he bowled, he got 38 wickets—a feat that brought him back to the Test side. On the dusty Mohali wicket, he foxed the Proteas keeping the ball straight while they played for turn, and took five wickets for 21 runs in the second innings.
Go back three years. It is Rajkot and Jadeja again. Only that he is on the other side of the wicket wielding a willow. He scored his third triple century in first class cricket, the first Indian to do so, on the well-laid, smooth road. The change of the pitch could not have been more dramatic—from being a bowlers' nightmare to a spinners’ heaven.
In the run-up to the Freedom Series between India and South Africa, it seemed the nature of the 22 yards had overshadowed everything. And, India captain Virat Kohli was irritated about it.“I think it is just a matter of mindset where people are just giving their opinions, and they are free to do so. We have never complained when we had challenging conditions and won't complain in the future, either,” he said.
In fact, the dry Mohali wicket was neither a rank turner nor an underprepared pitch that crumbled from day one. That the match ended in three days had as much to do with batsmen’s failure to apply themselves on a wicket that aimed at bringing the spinners into the main act. And, the debate is an extension of the one which is under way in domestic cricket.
With dull, boring endless draws being the bane of domestic cricket, the Board for Control of Cricket in India wanted to make matches more 'result-oriented'. The technical committee of the BCCI looked to make championships attractive by incentivising it through points, with the matches played on home and away basis in the league phase. It, in fact, started showing results. Almost half of all matches played this season had a winner.
It is not just national team captains who are asking for tailor-made wickets. Curators are facing increasing demand for home advantage and 'result-oriented’ wickets from domestic team captains. Said Delhi skipper Gautam Gambhir, “Playing on turning tracks is as much a challenge as playing on seaming tracks. Curators are scared to make spinning tracks. Only solution to it is five-day cricket. This will take out rank turners and overly green tops.” In Delhi, young curator Ankit Dutta is delivering the wickets that the captain wants. Delhi has got bonus points in matches played at home and is sitting pretty on top of the table.
Last season, Gambhir and Sundaram, who was the curator then, had a spat over the wicket for Vijay Hazare Trophy. Sundaram lodged a complaint with the Delhi and District Cricket Association that the skipper had abused and raised his bat at him. Gambhir vehemently denied it.
The mention of the Rajkot pitch puts Daljit Singh, chairman of the BCCI ground and pitches committee, on the defensive. “Till 2012-13, we had a policy that we needed to prepare domestic cricketers to face international bowlers. Thus we had seamer-friendly wickets. Then there came a phase where we saw Indian batsmen failing to play quality spin at home and away. And thus we thought we would look to provide wickets where there is a balance. In a four-day match, let there be variable bounce, something for spinners and seamers,” he said. But, is that really happening on ground?
Sudhir Naik, curator at Wankhede Stadium, brooks little interference by the captains and coaches in his job. The 70-year old Mumbai Cricket Association curator, a former Test player, is old school. “What is the exact definition of result oriented wicket? “If we prepare wickets like the one in Mohali, it will give results but is it good for cricket? There was an unwritten rule for us earlier—day one should assist pacers, day two it should ease to aide batsmen so that they can stay and play their shots, and from third day onwards spinners come into play. If you are making wickets where pace bowlers have no role at all even with the new ball, then that’s certainly not good for our cricket,” he said.
He has a point. The Mohali wicket saw Indian pace duo of Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron bowl 14 overs between them in the first innings and six in the second. In the third Test in Nagpur, the lone Indian pacer, Ishant Sharma, bowled only two overs in the first innings and 15 in the second. Team India director Ravi Shastri sees nothing wrong in it. “Which rule tells me that a ball can't turn on day one? Where does it tell me in the rule book it can only swing and seam? Here, at times, I think unless you play on these tracks you won't know how to play on these tracks,” he told a cricket portal.
However, former cricketer Rahul Dravid, who currently coaches India A and under-19 teams, does not approve of rank turners in domestic cricket. “In the Ranji Trophy this year teams are producing poor wickets; square turners where matches are finishing in two or three days. I don't think it's good for the health of Indian cricket,” he said.
Daljit defended the quality of pitches saying poor wickets had been fewer in the last few seasons. The current season, however, is a concern. “India is such a big country; the climate and soil conditions vary in every region. It is undoubtedly a challenge for us to prepare good wickets but we try. No one is advocating that the ball should turn square from the first ball onwards,” he said.
Sixty-two people have passed the curators certification course run by the BCCI , and all states have at least a qualified curator at the helm. However, many senior curators feel that the course needs a look as discrepancies are creeping in. It is said that applicants who do not meet the eligibility criteria have been sneaking in.
Daljit’s fellow member in the pitches committee, Dhiraj Prasanna, also blames batsmen and the habits of limited-over cricket for their failing to adapt to changing wickets. “We look always to prepare a good five-day wicket which gives us advantage. We look to prepare slow turners for the Indian team at home where the wicket wouldn’t turn from day one but with footmarks, wear and tear gradually aid spinners more,” he said.
Naik, who had an ugly spat with Shastri and bowling coach Bharath Arun over the wicket for the final One-Day between India and South Africa, said things were a lot easier in the past. “I have been preparing wickets since 1986, no one has pressured me like this,” he said.
The onus is on the BCCI to make quality spinners and batsmen who can play spin. It needs to create a proper development programme to develop spinners rather than messing with pitches. Naik cites the example of Sanjay Jagdale, BCCI secretary form 2011 to 2013, who took personal interest in the condition of pitches in every domestic match. “The reports would be sent to the BCCI; he would follow each report,” he said. “Those 2-3 years the wickets were very good. No one made the same effort after him.”