By Madan Mohan
Two separate events or, more appropriately, passages of events, have come as a pleasant surprise for the Indian cricket watcher. Livelier pitches for the Champions League T20 have resulted in low scoring scraps instead of than the usual slog fests. Rajasthan was also supposed to have welcomed Rest of India with a green top in their Irani Cup tie.
In the event, the said Jaipur pitch turned out to be green and not much else as Shikhar Dawan and Ajinkya Rahane helped themselves to plenty of runs. But, it is a surprise that a so-called green top was even prepared at all. And as I watched New South Wales overcome a top order capitulation to beat Mumbai Indians, I noticed unusual zip on the generally low and sluggish Chennai strip. Some of the Australian batsmen were actually beaten in the air and that’s unusual on Indian pitches, to say the least. Is change finally afoot?
In the ‘90s, when India were tigers at home and lambs abroad, watchers, journalists, experts all urged that India should prepare harder, faster pitches which would allow batsmen to get accustomed to playing deliveries that rise above the waist and also encourage pace bowling in the country. When India could not handle the shock and awe of South Africa’s pace even at home in 2000, this chorus hit a crescendo.
Little changed, however, in the decade that followed. Anil Kumble recovered from career-threatening injuries and had a glorious second wind while Harbhajan Singh bowled the best spells of his career under Sourav Ganguly. India’s spin expertise was intact and as potent as ever. Zaheer Khan operated with whoever got to be the second and third seamers to guide India to away wins. But a move away from turning tracks at home was still perceived as a risk to India’s home advantage.
Whenever pitches with more nip than usual were prepared, the curators were only crucified and not lauded. It was also generally perceived as a sign of some political battles being fought and some sects wanting to get back at the other through an Indian loss. Board politics is still thought of as the reason why a bouncy pitch was prepared at Nagpur in the India-Australia series in 2004. India crumbled and lost the match and the series, by the way.
Things have changed since the retirement of Anil Kumble. Sri Lanka and Australia are struggling to groom replacements for legendary spinners Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne and India are in the same boat. Inconsistency in selection policies may have played a part in Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra not quite coming of age. But in all honesty, they are not the most inspiring prospects either. When Kumble and Harbhajan were operating in tandem, such spinners would probably not have got a look-in. Even such a fine talent as Murali Kartik did not get enough opportunities to show his mettle at the highest level. Today, the tables have turned and the selectors must wish Kartik was five years younger.
On the other hand, India has unearthed several pace bowlers over the last few years. True, most of them have fallen by the wayside after a spate of injuries and subsequently dropped their pace. But if at all there’s anything remotely inspiring about India’s future prospects in bowling, it’s to be found in pace. For all the faults of Shantakumaran Sreesanth or Ishant Sharma, they can run through good batting line-ups on the rare day that they hit their stride. That is something Ojha or Mishra have not done at the best of times. The future clearly lies in pace.
The current crop of Indian batsmen have also been badly exposed by chin music in away outings. They appear to be good strikers of the ball and have some natural talent but just don’t have the technique to negotiate persistent short pitched pace bowling. The only way to overcome this problem, from a long term perspective, is to make them get used to it and evolve adequate technique to cope with hostile pace bowling. Perhaps, the BCCI has finally understood this and a change is already apparent in the nature of the pitches.
Or, I may simply be leading myself and you the reader on a red herring trail. Maybe, nothing will change and this may be an aberration. But a lot of things have changed about Indian cricket in the last 10 years so hopefully, the one thing that badly needed to change is finally being addressed. I still predict a return to sleeping beauties when England come over.
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)