The pitch hitch

The tracks completely favouring the spinners in the Ranji Trophy this season have once again led to the debate on the wisdom of having such pitches at the domestic level and the long-term repercussions.

A pitch in preparation for a Ranji Trophy match in Ongole (Andhra). Spinner-friendly surfaces this season have changed the way cricket is played in the domestic circuit.   -  KOMMURI SRINIVAS

The Tamil Nadu versus Punjab match in progress in Dindigul. This was one of the eight Ranji Trophy matches to finish in two days this season.   -  THE HINDU

To have spinner-friendly pitches or not is the question that has caught Indian cricket in a spin. From Test matches to Ranji Trophy games, the obsession for having ‘result-oriented’ and ‘turning tracks’ has been predominant in cricketing debate.

Until the last season, the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s diktat to leave a minimum of 6mm of grass on the pitch had led to seamers of all kinds picking up plenty of wickets. The spinners, on the other hand, were left high and dry.

Captains of various State teams — unless someone was as fortunate as the Jammu and Kashmir skipper, Perveez Rasool, to lead the side — were reluctant to field a spinner in the playing XI. A spinner picking up wickets was rare. Containing the runs and giving the seamers a break was the primary job of the spinners.

But not anymore. The BCCI ruling is gone and the spinners are back in demand.

The league phase of the Ranji Trophy this season has shown the spinners to be among the top wicket-takers in the tournament. K. Monish of Kerala, Akshay Wakhare of Vidarbha, Shahbaz Nadeem and Jalaj Saxena of Madhya Pradesh are the four spinners among the top five wicket-takers in the Ranji Trophy league.

For left-arm spinners Monish and Nadeem and off-spinners Wakhare and Saxena, the season has been productive because of the helpful tracks. The host associations’ decision to discard safety-first tactics and produce spinner-friendly surfaces this season has changed the way cricket is played in the domestic circuit.

Almost everywhere, the hosts are rolling out ‘spinning surfaces’ and many matches are finishing inside two or three days. The Bengal versus Odisha match at the Kalyani ground in Kolkata beat all other contests, for the ‘crucial’ home game for Bengal on a seemingly under-prepared pitch ended in one-and-a-half days.

Former India captain Sourav Ganguly being the Cricket Association of Bengal president, no one expected an apolitical response from him. “The pitch is okay. It is turning a bit,” he was quoted as saying on the first day of the match.

The Odisha team lodged a complaint with the BCCI, terming the surface ‘dangerous’. However, Bengal achieved what they had aimed for — an outright victory and with it the six points — and strengthened their chances of qualifying for the knockout stage.

In all, eight Ranji matches this season finished in two days — Tamil Nadu vs. Punjab in Dindigul; Himachal Pradesh vs. Kerala in Malappuram; Himachal Pradesh vs. Jharkhand in Ranchi, Bengal vs. Odisha in Kalyani, Kolkata; Delhi vs. Maharashtra in Delhi; Punjab vs. Andhra in Patiala; Jammu and Kashmir vs. Services in Jammu and Saurashtra vs. Jharkhand in Rajkot. Barring the Feroze Shah Kotla wicket in Delhi, the rest would not qualify as surfaces fit for first class cricket. Some matches elsewhere lasted three days, as curators prepared pitches to keep the home captain happy.

Former India captain Rahul Dravid triggered a debate on the subject following the Bengal versus Odisha game saying, “At the Ranji Trophy level, we are looking to prepare the players for the international stage. What I have seen recently, these wickets are poor. I really don’t think it’s good for Indian cricket because if you think about them it’s a waste of time, energy and money. The reason for the Ranji Trophy is not only to decide the winner in the end. It also has a job to develop and prepare cricketers for the international stage. And if we keep playing on bad wickets like these, we are not going to develop and produce good cricketers.”

The tracks completely favouring the spinners this season have once again led to the debate on the wisdom of having such pitches at the domestic level and the long-term repercussions. Good at home but meek overseas is a reputation that has dogged Indian cricket for years. Nothing wrong in exploiting the home advantage by preparing pitches that suit the host team’s bowlers, but it hardly helps the National selectors in picking quality players.

Is making it to the next stage to be among the top-eight or top-four the most important thing in domestic cricket? That precisely seems to be the policy adopted by most teams this season.

Therefore, what is an ideal pitch?

 

The old timers believe that an ideal pitch should give the batsmen a fair chance. “Cricket on under-prepared pitches is unlikely to help anyone. It gives a flattering impression of ordinary players. We have to produce all-season players and that can’t happen on poor pitches. Spin can be your strength, but it becomes your weakness too when you look to exploit situations at home. Overseas, it tends to expose your limitations,” observed former India medium-pacer and coach Madan Lal.

“A good spinner can take wickets on any surface,” Rajinder Goel, who took a record 640 wickets in Ranji Trophy, had told this reporter when the debate on green tops was at its peak last year.

Goel, who captured 750 first class wickets in a career spanning 27 years, said, “Grass on wickets cannot be an excuse. Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and (Muttiah) Muralitharan — even though there were some doubts about his action — have picked up wickets all over the world. Have our spinners such as Prasanna, Venkataraghavan, Bishan Singh Bedi and Chandrasekhar not taken wickets on grassy surfaces abroad?”

Venkat Sundaram, a former North Zone captain and an expert in preparing pitches, was of the view that the way forward is to give the curators a free hand.

“It is a technical job and needs a lot of understanding of the subject. When captains and coaches start interfering with the preparation of pitches, it makes the curator’s job difficult. A curator knows best what is good for both the teams and it is time he is given the sole responsibility of deciding on the nature of the pitch,” said Sundaram, known for his strict approach.

Dravid’s remark puts things in perspective. “We need to start forcing teams to prepare good pitches. We don’t want green tops, but we don’t want pitches either where matches finish in two days and people bowling darts get six-seven wickets.”

The Ground and Pitches Committee, headed by Daljit Singh of Punjab, monitors the curators. Zonal heads carry the responsibility but do not always enjoy a free hand. There are some efficient curators such as Taposh Chatterjee, Sunil Chauhan, Samandar Chauhan, Venkat Sundaram, Ankit Datta, P. R. Vishwanathan and Sanjeev Aggarwal, who have received a lot of praise for their work.

Daljit, who has a sound knowledge of the subject, is constantly working to provide good pitches, but this season things have not worked well.

A certification course by the BCCI could well be the way forward, with curators being offered contracts. Besides, the BCCI must ensure that the host association does not interfere with the curator’s work.

Or else, the National selectors would be hard-pressed to identify genuine talent. It is an irony that the top wicket-takers in the Ranji Trophy this year are unlikely to find spots in the national team in the near future.

The administrators face a huge challenge. They need to make pitch-preparation a professional job and invite qualified curators to deal with the issue. Unless the quality of pitches improves, Indian cricket will suffer even more in the times to come.