Wednesday, 2 December 2015

A TALE OF TWO CITIES : Adelaide vs Nagpur

Adelaide grabbed all the eyeballs, while Nagpur, the headlines.

Two three-day test matches unfolded over the last weekend, but it seemed that was about all the similarity they had. While one set the stage for the longest format of the game to enter a new era, the other was a throwback to times when spinners wreaked havoc in the subcontinent.  Both elicited different reactions: one mostly adoration, and the other, largely condemnation. The centre of attention in the first was the ball, and in the second, the pitch.

I’m talking of course, about the pink ball vs. the dust bowl. Adelaide vs. Nagpur. Both very different test matches.

Or were they?

Runs were hard to come by in both games. The 200 mark resisted achievement, like it had a magnet there that repelled teams under it, and pulled back teams that went passed it.  Only two half centuries punctuated the eight completed innings, both in the pink ball test. Strike rates languished sluggishly around the fifty-mark, rare for four teams filled with high quality batters. Bowlers had the upper hand in both games from ball one. Wickets were thrown away thanks to some poor decision making on both sides of the world. The side that bowled better won, on both occasions, as almost always is in test cricket.

Both were played on result oriented wickets. Both ended in three days.

Then why the public flaying of the Nagpur wicket on social media? Because it was too one sided, they said. Because it was not an even contest between bat and ball. Because it was un-entertaining.    

By that reasoning, the test at Perth, preceding the pink ball test, should have received an equal amount of flak. A venue that is considered to be a fast bowlers dream to served up a pitch that ended a fast bowler’s career. It was like turning up expecting to see Smaug, only to find oneself confronted by an imitation, a paper dragon. Runs were piled on in a seemingly facile manner. Records tumbled, and the turnstiles clicked over for all five days. For the most part, people were happy. With a draw. One that was so interesting it was compared to the rained out second test in Bangalore. Sure, a few people made some noises about the pitch. But no one was really complaining. After all, this is a batter’s game.

This is a rant. By a bowler, against the batter’s game. And more so against the ‘batter’s game mindset’. And here’s why:

Both Adelaide and Nagpur served up pitches that challenged the batters, irrespective of the condition of the ball. In Adelaide, a smattering of grass lay on the wicket, to make sure the pink ball felt comfortable on its debut. In Nagpur, the track reflected the water shortage in the region that has sadly driven so many farmers to suicide.

Admittedly, the Nagpur track had a great deal more to offer the consistent bowler than the Adelaide pitch. But is that to say it gave any one team an advantage? I feel it did not. Both teams could avail use of the same conditions on day one, and on day two.  Therefore it was a more sporting wicket than a green top that gives the team bowling first a huge head start as it gradually but inevitably flattens out every day.

It did challenge the batters from ball one. But does the community deplore the many ‘roads’ test matches across the world are played on, which give the bowlers nothing? Let’s not even get started about the condition of wickets in ODI cricket.  Aren’t those challenges, for the bowlers, and if they are, why is the international cricket community in outcry only against wickets that challenge batters? Can we not gain entertainment from such wickets too? Can we not say to ourselves, “Alright, this isn’t a 400 wicket, it’s a 150 one’’ and stand and applaud the team that gets 200?

Another attack made against the Nagpur track was that it produced a one sided match. It did, but was that the fault of the pitch?

India are infamous for being bad travellers. It is usually because the batters can’t cope with the foreign conditions and the bowlers aren’t as good as their counterparts at exploiting them.  That is exactly what happened to South Africa in Nagpur, in a more dramatic fashion than anyone could have imagined, making them the cynosure of the cricket world, and making the Nagpur pitch the villain. 

The fact of the matter was that the South African spinners weren’t consistent enough to take advantage of the purchase that the wicket offered, allowing the Indian batters to look better than they were. That Morne Morkel was their second highest wicket taker in the first innings is testament to that fact. Their batters on the other hand, were undone by a combination of brilliant spin bowling and bad shot selection. Murali Vijay, Wriddhiman Saha and JP Duminy  showed that one could bat on that track, one where getting to 40 was equal to scoring a hundred.

Adelaide on the other hand, was a game featuring two very evenly matched batting departments, and two bowling attacks equally adept at exploiting conditions that suited them. Bowlers on both sides picked up five-fors, and there too, bowling spells provided the defining moments of the match. Thus the audience there witnessed an even contest; a game that ebbed and flowed either way, in which both teams stood a chance of winning.

Every country has a right to prepare pitches that offer them advantage. I’m positive Kohli and co will not be complaining about pace and bounce when India tours Australia next year. And spare a thought for the curators. I know next to nothing about the art of pitch making, but I am certain it is an art, not an exact science. After the furore over CEO pitches in England, this recent recrudescence of result oriented wickets is a breath of fresh air.

So I venture that we abandon the ‘batter’s game mindset’ while rushing to judge these three day tests. With all the recent rule changes in ODI cricket, bowlers have had to learn to swim in the deep end for far too long. It’s good to see some smiles on their faces.

And let’s celebrate, not denigrate home advantage. In the Hunger Games, the Gamemakers created different environments each time the tributes entered the arena. But it was the tributes who were able to adapt, and outlast the competition that survived, even if the environment was a far cry from that of their own districts. So too it is in the sacrosanct arena of test cricket and so should it remain.  


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