Pitch imperfect

Had it been for a better pitch — and better exhibition with the willow from both the teams — the fans would have revelled in enjoying the action over the weekend.

The teams before the start of the third Test match at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

The brand-new stadium on the outskirts of the epicentre of Gujarat was the talk of the cricketing globe even before India and England arrived in the Bapuland after the Chennai leg of the four-Test series.

The buzz was understandable. After all, the erstwhile Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium had been reconstructed into an ultramodern marvel, which could accommodate more spectators than any other cricket ground in the world. That too with a ring of fire, the circular arrangement of floodlights on the roof of the stadium, and four dressing rooms, a move ahead of its times considering the increasing number of double-headers in a game that’s witnessing an evolution of shorter formats.

But by the time Rohit Sharma swivelled Joe Root into the mid-wicket stand barely 20 minutes after the dinner break on the second night, more than the glitzy stadium, it was the dusty surface that had emerged as the talking point.

During the build-up to the game, the likes of Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara had stressed on the need to discuss cricket more than pitches. But with a treacherous strip being in offing at Motera, the surface understandably overshadowed the hype around the pink-ball and the stadium, which was renamed as the Narendra Modi Stadium, ahead of the first day’s play.

The fans who came in large numbers must have been disappointed with the match lasting less than two days.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

 

Yes, the spinners from both sides made optimum use of the conditions. Yes, the batting was mediocre, to say the least, with the honourable exception of Rohit and Zak Crawley. Still, it cannot be ignored that the pitch was far from an ideal surface for a Test match. The fact that the pace bowlers were taken out of equation early on in the game, thanks to craters formed at the landing area in the first hour of the game underlines that the pitch was far from getting all the elements of the sport into the game.

While England captain Root said the spectators were “robbed” of witnessing quality Test match, Rohit justified the turf, stressing it was a “nice pitch to bat on” and there were “no demons” in it.

The fact of the matter is no winning side is ever going to be critical of a pitch that has fetched it the result it desired for. Besides, no touring side in India, especially the one that has been far from being competitive with its batting, is going to be overtly critical of the pitch.

That the quality of the surface forced the debate around the extent to which a host nation should stretch its home advantage to resurface is enough to indicate it wasn’t an ideal strip for an international game.

Thanks to the pitch, the fans were robbed of witnessing a swinging pink-ball contest between James Anderson and Virat Kohli. Also missing in action for virtually the whole game was India’s fearsome pace duo of Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah. While the veteran was featuring in his 100th Test, the younger sensation was playing in India’s whites in front of his home crowd for the first time in his career.

That aside, the Gujarati crowd seemed to have feasted during the limited time it could enjoy the match for.

So much so that a fan even jumped the fence and the non-existent security cover to sprint on to the playing area in what turned out to be a major breach of the biosecure bubble that the teams are in during the pandemic.

Had it been for a better pitch — and better exhibition with the willow from both the teams — the fans would have revelled in enjoying the action over the weekend. Considering the big occasion and the return of international cricket to Ahmedabad after more than six years, plenty of fans in and around the western States had descended on the city.

Zak Crawley of England is bowled by Axar Patel in the second innings. The spinners from both sides made optimum use of the conditions.   -  Sportzpics / BCCI

 

Such was the pitch that it helped England hide its lack of basic skills against spin. Despite the conditions, if England is to be competitive in Asia against top bowling sides like India and Pakistan, it will need drastic improvements in the skill-set to face quality spin attacks.

In that respect, it’s a fair reflection that Root’s army was out of the race for a berth in the World Test Championship after being bowled out for its lowest total against India.

As for India, the five-session win has resulted in Virat Kohli and Co. putting one foot in the final of the WTC. And with R. Ashwin and Axar Patel having tasted blood at Chepauk and feasting on it at Motera, one wouldn’t be surprised if India continues to feast on the leftovers of England’s meek surrender with a similar surface for the series finale.

Until then — and for the years to come — one hopes that the next time Test cricket comes calling to Ahmedabad after 2021, the match will be remembered for the quality of cricket rather than the 22-yard strip.