Pitching it right
Indian Express 14 Oct 2019 00:14 AM
India’s home dominance once relied on the wickets on offer, but their innings-and-137-run win over South Africa, makes this narrative redundant
As dark clouds drifted into the stadium shortly after India had thrashed the Proteas by an innings and 137 runs, curator Pandurang Salgaonkar stood beside the 22-yard strip sporting a faint smile. It was something he couldn’t have done two years back when the India-Australia Test had got over in three days, thanks to his crumbling pitch.
Salgaonkar soon addressed his assistants before they dispersed to wipe off the debris and selectively burn the worn-out patches of the strip. It resembled a burial ground, symbolic of how India, in their ascent to invincibility, has burned its overdependence on made-to-order turners. There, no doubt, was turn, but not ripping, gasp-inducing deviation. Competent batsmen could trust the bounce, play through the line, and even leave on length. That was the reason Indian captain Virat Kohli enforced the follow-on, a rarity for modern-day skippers. If the strip was prone to cracking up, he would have thought twice.
All the wickets South Africa lost on the fourth day, owed to the mastery of Indian bowlers. For example, Aiden Markram was undone by subtle inward seam movement off Ishant Sharma. Temba Bavuma was wonderfully entrapped by Ravindra Jadeja. So did Ashwin dismiss Faf du Plessis, bluffing him with a dipping off-break before slipping in a flatter one that didn’t turn as much, identical to how he nailed him in the first dig.
Wriddhiman Saha took a brace of wonderful catches, diving to his left to pouch the smooth Theunis de Bryun and juggling to complete the inside-edge catch of du Plessis. The skipper’s departure crushed South Africa’s last lingering hopes of salvaging something from the match. From 70/3 and soon to 79/5, there was no wriggle room.
Also to be blamed was the South Africans injudicious stroke-play. Dean Elgar, for instance, attempted to loft Ashwin, but ended up miscuing it. Quinton de Kock tried a horrendous slog-sweep off Jadeja, and ended up missing it completely. So it wasn’t so much a misbehaving pitch as their own incompetence and injudiciousness. Then, that’s what good bowling units do to teams — they force them to do something silly. While it’s rare for non-Asian spinners to boss over their Indian counterparts, South Africa’s pace pack has repeatedly outbowled the Indians, from the days of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock to those of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. That was the reason Team India regularly opted for turning tracks.
This time around too, the South Africans had a pair of terrific pacemen in Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander, both familiar with the climes and having played Tests here, but they were put to shade by Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav. Together, with the unusually jaded Ishant, they gobbled up 16 wickets, which is almost half of the bowlers’ spoils. The corresponding numbers for Rabada and Co read just six. In Vizag, they plugged away despite negligible assistance. in Pune they maximised the early bounce and carry, while Rabada, Philander and Anrich Nortje wasted the most conducive circumstances for seam bowling.
Staggeringly, it’s not a one-off instance. In the series against West Indies last year, Umesh was the highest wicket-taker and had a better strike-rate and average than Ravichandran Ashwin and Co. A year back, the quartet of Shami, Yadav, Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar combined to take 31 off the 53 Sri Lankan wickets. During the prolonged home stretch too (2016-17), the seamers weren’t merely props in the play.
All of these instances suggest that India’s invulnerability at home isn’t the consequence of throwing the visiting batsmen into akhadas and snake-pits. It hasn’t been home conditions but world class quality that has shone through Kohli’s record-setting streak of 11 home series wins in a row. Starting from the England tour, they have lost just one match, drawn four and won 18, and of those victories, the least convincing margin of victory was by 75 runs and eight wickets (batting last). This was how Australia steamrolled hapless competitors from the late 90s to mid-aughts.
With the bowlers taking the pitch out of the equation, the days of coaxing or cajoling curators are a thing of the past. Even Kohli doesn’t minutely inspect the pitch before the match. A quick scan and he walks off.
Even opposition skippers don’t fuss over wickets. Du Plessis, who featured in the 2015 series, where square-turners were the norm, admitted as much while deflecting India’s series win to the quality they possess. “You don’t mind losing to a team which is better than you, and they were in every aspect. If you look at their team in terms of Test caps, experience and the numbers they have on the board in terms of averages, they’re way ahead of us.”
It was a frank admission that India is the contemporary benchmark. Beating them at home will be the ultimate prize, as beating Australia in Australia or West Indies in West Indies once was. visitors needn’t fear the devilish turners, rather their wholesome bowlers and sterling batsmen. The pitch would no longer be an antagonist, neither the men who make them. Salgaonkar could finally smile.