After leg-spinner Narendra Hirwani claimed 16 wickets on a turner in the Chennai Test of 1988, rival skipper Viv Richards had a message for India. “Come to the West Indies,” he said, “we’ll show you.” It wasn’t just a vague threat, as it turned out.
England skipper Joe Root is unlikely to say anything similar. But if he is thinking it, can you blame him?
Virat Kohli would, of course, claim the Ahmedabad wicket for the third Test was a very good one to bat on. He is contracted to the Board of Control for Cricket in India. And naturally Ravichandran Ashwin would take offence at any suggestion that the Indian spinners needed assistance from it.
Indian television commentators beholden to the BCCI aren’t going to bite the hand that feeds them. Michael Vaughan calling India’s victory a hollow one because of the “awful pitch” is par for the course too.
Partisanship apart, the question is, did India overdo it? If there were to be a greater variety in the tracks prepared for the series, one would not have minded so much. For then the teams would face different challenges, have to use different strategies, and spectators get to appreciate the richness of the game and understand that usage ‘Test’ cricket is not accidental.
Everybody is right
Everybody is right about Ahmedabad. Yes, it favoured spin too early; yes, it was a test of technique and temperament; yes, the spinners didn’t have to try too hard on it. But isn’t that what an international player signs up for? The unfamiliar, the difficult? The argument that it was the straight ball earned wickets is disingenuous and reflects a mentality that sees each wicket-taking delivery as a stand-alone without reference to what went before.
The straight ball was dangerous because the ones preceding either spun extravagantly or threatened to. Decades ago, Wilfred Rhodes, the only bowler with 4000-plus First-Class wickets said: “If the batsman thinks it is spinning, then it is spinning.”
‘Spin’ is not a bad word in cricket, although teams loaded with pace and swing sometimes give that impression. The spinner is an artist, using flight, change of pace, and a host of variations to fool the batsman into playing the ball that is not there or inadvertently nicking one that changes its mind and alters course.
Hit the spot!
Ahmedabad called for just one strategy. Hit the same spot and let the track do the rest. This Axar Patel did extremely well. In the second innings, off-spinner Ashwin seemed to rebel against this uni-dimensional approach. He flighted, he undercut, he changed the angle, the pace, the trajectory. Perhaps he didn’t think there was challenge enough. As the journalist Tunku Varadarajan tweeted, Ashwin was using a super computer when an abacus would do!
The pitch at the new stadium in Ahmedabad wasn’t as terrible as the one in Sabina Park in 1997-98 where a Test was called off after England batted just 10.1 overs. Nor was it a bowlers’ graveyard where teams barely complete the first innings in five days and everybody claims Test cricket is dying. Anything between these two extremes is fair.
However you looked at it, the two-day Test was a riveting game, packing into six sessions the excitement and drama usually spread over 15.
One of the many charms of cricket is the range of the natural conditions in which it is played. The weather, the type of grass on the field, the slope, the possibility of dew, the light, all influence the course of a match. Before overcoming the opposition, a team has to deal with the conditions. Chennai is nothing like Nottingham, Perth cannot be mistaken for Karachi. For the champion there is no home ground.
Just the other day, India were facing a sharp pace attack in Australia, and had been dismissed for 36. They won that series — batsmen took blows on the bodies and to their egos — and then had to deal with the heat and dust of Chennai and Ahmedabad. Even home conditions need getting used to sometimes.
If a visiting team lacks the skill to play spin bowling, then they can expect to find wickets that aid spin, especially in the subcontinent. The reverse is also true. A team which plays spin well but has an imperfect record against swing or pace can expect to get wickets that minimise their strengths and exaggerate their weaknesses when they tour. This is hardly rocket science.
The temptation to funnel the blame outwards from shortcomings within is natural. To their credit, England have not complained about the state of the wicket, whatever those far away from the action might have said.
Viv Richards has said there has been too much “moaning and groaning” about the Ahmedabad wicket. “Too much” is right, but a certain amount is justified.