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22 -yard Plot

22 -yard Plot
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THE three-and-a-half-day pitched battle at Motera was fought on a dusty, crumbling track that could put a dried-up mud wrestling pit to shame. Understandably, it didn’t have cool cat Cronje merely purring in bemusement. If anything, those within earshot of the South African skipper at the end of that infamous dust bowl downer swore they heard an angry, grating growl: "This is the worst pitch we’ve ever played a Test match on." Hansie Cronje, a man not known to be easily ruffled, wasn’t talking mean for no reason.

So when the shell-shocked South Africans arrived at cricket’s Garden of Eden for the second Test of the ongoing McDowell series, desperately in need of salvation, they got it. In the form of a firm, grassy, bouncy pitch that was a far, far cry from the Ahmedabad atrocity. As Cronje’s cricketing cronies feasted their eyes on the 22-yard strip in the middle of the lush green Eden Gardens arena, smiles returned to faces. Allan Donald, a bowler who can coax life out of a foam mattress, allowed himself the luxury of an all-knowing smirk. And team coach Bob Woolmer, the much-derided Mr Encyclopaedia, gave his verdict: "This is a Test match pitch, Motera was a waste of time."

 When the chips are down, even the computer can fail. At Motera, Woolmer’s omniscient laptop didn’t quite know what to make of the proceedings. It was a pitch on which many a delivery would scoop up a puff of dust and spray it in the eyes of the bats-man. The gizmo did, however, tell Woolmer that Test pitches in India are invariably designed to aid spinners—the bounce is low and uneven, the pace slow and variable and the surface loose and dusty. They crumble at the drop of a county cap. But nothing had prepared Woolmer and his machine (which, by the way, stands for both the computer and the team) for anything quite as beastly as the Motera dirt track.

Indian coach Madan Lal doesn’t, of course, need a laptop to tell him where his team’s strengths—and, indeed, frailties—lie. Just two days before the start of the Eden Gardens Test, the mood in the Indian camp, despite the resounding Ahmedabad victory, was almost funereal. Surprise, nasty surprise, the wicket had a green tinge. Madan Lal and captain Sachin Tendulkar saw red. Grass is for the cows, not for our trumpcard Anil Kumble, so let’s cut out the fancy tufts, the duo thought aloud.

Maheswar Sahu, the man who made the pitch that sent India to its doom in the World Cup, and his ground staff went to work immediately. But the new track—laid out after the March 13 World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka—lost none of its bounce and pace despite the eleventh-hour shearing. "This wicket will last. We can’t afford a repeat of March 13," said Sahu on day one. What the indefatigable groundsman left unsaid was that the lively pitch, which made for a great Test match with great bowling and batting performances on both sides, wasn’t quite custom-built for Kumble in the manner of most desi wickets. After all, the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) had a point to prove. When Mohammed Azharuddin’s men crashed out of the World Cup on an underprepared, untested wicket eight months back amid a hail of mineral water bottles and other missiles, it was not just the reputation of a sports-crazy city that lay in tatters. The very ability of the host association to deliver good, firm, durable pitches was called into question.

Hence the green tinge. And the firm top. Of course, by the morning of the first day, following 48 hours of controlled rolling and mowing, the Eden pitch had turned brown. But as Donald, Brian McMillan, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad demonstrated, the wicket still had enough in it for the speedsters. Moreover, strokeplayers had a fair chance of making an impression (see box).

The much-maligned Sahu had got it all perfectly in the slot this time around. And there were many happy voices at Eden Gardens.

"The Eden pitch hasn’t been so full of life in a long, long time," said former Bengal fast bowler Barun Burman. "I wonder why we always need slow turners to beat visiting teams? Doesn’t India have Srinath and Prasad in its ranks?" former Test batsman Ashok Malhotra wrote in a Calcutta daily.

What went wrong with the Eden Gardens pitch for the World Cup semifinal was that it wasn’t completed before the monsoons. "Work on the pitch went on until November," recalls the curator of the Mohali wicket, Daljit Singh, who had been consulted by the CAB. "Matters were aggravated by the stage that was erected for the Wills World Cup inauguration." So on the big day, it didn’t last 50 overs.

The president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Raj Singh Dungarpur, himself a medium-pacer who turned out for Rajasthan in the Ranji Trophy in the ’60s and ’70s, liked the look of the Eden Gardens wicket: "It seems to be livelier than the one at Mohali. It’s good for the game." Dungarpur is all for more such pitches all around the country, especially for domestic matches. "It can only help the all-round growth of Indian cricket." Daljit Singh, curator of the wonderfully sporting Mohali wicket, has a clear formula. "It should seam for the first two days, help strokeplay all through and take turn by the fourth day," he says, spelling out his concept of a perfect wicket. And it is not just Test matches and one-day internationals that he is thinking of. is as determined as ever to provide a lively pitch for the upcoming Duleep Trophy final. "In domestic cricket, wickets must improve, and quickly at that," says Singh.

Clearly, after decades of ‘doctoring’ pitches for slow bowlers, the thinking among cricket administrators is changing. The truly atrocious Motera wicket may have hastened it all, but not a day too soon. "There is no doubt that pitches in India have created a generation of batsmen who can’t handle genuine pace," says Test discard Rajesh Chauhan. "It explains the absence of two openers who can play for India on a regular basis," adds the Madhya Pradesh off-spinner.

Till the Motera Test, India had won as many as 11 of the 15 Tests it has played at home since the ‘brownwash’ of England in 1992-93. The only time a host body refused to give our team the kind of pitch it wanted (the Punjab Cricket Association for the third Test against the West Indies at Mohali, May 1994), India lost: its only defeat on home turf in nearly five years. "In any case, it was a true wicket even on the fifth day. It was a combination of bad batting and sustained fast bowling that did India in," recalls Daljit Singh. What exposed the Indian top-order the most was the fact that Srinath and Venkatapathy Raju kept Courtney Walsh and company at bay for two hours in the afternoon.

Singh, an accomplished wicketkeeper who represented four teams (Services, Punjab, Delhi, Bihar) during a long domestic career, is among those leading the battle to revolutionise pitch-making in India. "I wonder how many wickets in this country have been properly laid," he says. That is where the problem lies. "I dress the top one-and-a-half inches of the Mohali track every year before monsoon so that it stays fresh and firm," says Singh. Not many pitches in India receive similar care. As a result, they do not bind well enough as the clay erodes over the seasons.

The professionalism that has enveloped cricket has, surprisingly, has left the job of the curator untouched. Says Bhagirath Thakore, the Motera curator and former Gujarat fast bowler who played for the Board President’s XI against Gerry Alexander’s West Indies in 1958-59: "So far, we’ve been doing it for the love of the game. Now that professionalism is setting the pace, why shouldn’t curators, too, be treated professionally? It’s an area where an immense amount of talent and experience is needed. You have to pay for good groundsmen who can then be fired if they fail to deliver."

 Professionalism is G. Kasturi Rangan’s stock-in-trade. The curator of the Chinnaswamy Stadium and vice-president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association knows it all. Having played Ranji Trophy cricket for Karnataka for 16 years and being a man who runs a horticultural business, Kasturi Rangan’s knowledge of soil conditions in Bangalore and other cricketing centres of South India is second to none. "The final decision regarding the nature of the pitch to be made for an international match rests with the host association," he asserts. "While the manager of the home team can ask for a particular kind of track, which they indeed do, the ultimate authority lies with the organisation hosting the tie and its curator."

 It’s precisely this authority the CAB, whose chairman Jagmohan Dalmiya is also BCCI secretary, exercised during the Eden Gardens Test. But, unfortunately, It’s not often that this happens in India. Says K.K. Mehra, president of the Delhi & District Cricket Association (DDCA): "Pitches are always prepared at the behest of administrators not just in India but everywhere else in the cricketing world too. Nothing unusual about it." Former Test cricketer Sudhir Naik, who was the curator of Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium for ten years until the beginning of this season, concurs: "There’s nothing shameful or unsporting in preparing pitches to suit your team." But he’s quick to add that it’s absolutely imperative that a certain minimum standard is met. "The Motera wicket fell far short of that basic requirement," says Naik.

Says Woolmer: "Most Test wickets start deteriorating after the third day, but the Motera pitch was really pathetic. It was dusty as hell out there." Thakore insists the pitch wasn’t responsible for 40 wickets tumbling in a little over three-and-a-half days, 13 of them in the last three hours or so. "It wasn’t just a spinner’s wicket. It had both bounce and bite and helped the pacers (especially those prepared to bend their backs, use their shoulders and bowl straight) as much as the tweakers."

 No matter what Thakore says, the South Africans haven’t taken too kindly to what the Motera pitch did to them. Says Krish Mackerdhuj, president of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA): "Pitches for international matches must adhere to a minimum standard. " In fact, the UCBSA has begun experimenting with pitch inspectors. "If, say, 15 wickets fall on the first day, the inspector looks into the matter and files a report. In the recent past, two provinces have been fined twice for preparing substandard pitches," reveals Mackerdhuj. He advocates that a similar mechanism be introduced by the International Cricket Council (ICC) everywhere for international matches.

Kasturi Rangan, who grows 4,000 varieties of roses on his farm, feels the term ‘spinner’s wicket’ is a specious euphemism: "A wicket that helps spin from the word go is actually an underprepared wicket. Even a pace bowler can find himself wickets on such a pitch because all the grass has been taken off." Explaining the modus operandi of a curator who is keen to deliver a ‘helpful’ pitch to the home captain, Rangan says: "Light rolling is done when the pitch is dry, as a result of which the top surface becomes dry and dusty." The amount of topsoil determines the wicket character. "Clay on the surface binds the pitch and makes it hard. So if the quantity of clay is limited, the pitch crumbles early." 

Hyderabad’s Rehmat Baig, another ex-Ranji player-turned-curator, won’t buy the theory that all desi wickets are slow turners. "Many are looking more pacy of late," he argues. "The spinners do hold sway when the wickets crack, but good fast bowlers—our very own Kapil Dev, besides Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Imran Khan, Malcolm Marshall, Donald—have had nothing to complain about."

Baig, who played for Services (13 seasons) and Hyderabad (three seasons), is convinced Hyderabad’s Lal Bahadur Stadium has one of the best pitches in the land. The brick wicket, laid in 1990, is often compared with those at Eden Gardens and Mohali. Former Test star M.L. Jaisimha says: "The Lal Bahadur Stadium wicket has improved a great deal. But I don’t think it’s as pacy as the groundsmen claim."

  Claims and counter-claims, indecisions and assertions—amid all these, it’s still a fact that every team plays to its strength. And the first step in that exercise is the preparation of a ‘partial’ pitch. In the world of cricket, with its deliciously vague conceptions of fair-play, this is seen as an almost natural part of the contest. But when the interests of cricket are subjugated to the needs of a home team, as it was in Ahmedabad, it’s time to stand firm and play straight. For, at the end of the day, the game must triumph.

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