Over the last few days, it has been amusing to read so much written about the so-called home advantage that enabled India to win the third Test in Kanpur and square the three Test rubber against South Africa. That too, after having been mauled in the previous Test in Ahmedabad by an innings and 90 runs.
It was only to be expected that the pitch in Kanpur would be different from the one in Ahmedabad on which India had been bowled out for a paltry 76 in the first innings. It was expected that the pitch would in essence be slow in nature, but where the top would crumble and bring in the elements of variable bounce and turn. No wonder match referee Roshan Mahanama did not think twice of reporting the sub-standard state of the pitch to the International Cricket Council. Knowing Roshan only too well, I am sure that he would have done the same had South Africa won the Test in the same conditions. There is neither an excuse nor a justification for a sub-standard pitch.
Of course, India having won, all is hunky-dory. The fact is, India got away with such a pitch, because South Africa had two left-arm slow bowlers in their ranks and played only one. Both, however, have a long way to go before being accepted as match-winners on helpful pitches. India took a chance going in with one spinner capable of exploiting the conditions in Harbhajan Singh. The other spinner, young Piyush Chawla was clearly a wrong choice and in the second innings, the captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni showed little interest in the former. It was just as well for the home team that Virender Sehwag emerged trumps and paceman Ishant Sharma had the firepower to overcome the slow pitch and exploit the variable bounce.
But then, it is possible that everything could have gone horribly wrong had South Africa made more runs in the first innings without letting the gremlins in the mind play havoc. And once India grabbed a decent lead it was clear that the visiting team were going to struggle. But, even then the new coach, Gary Kirsten said that he had worried when India were chasing a small victory target.
The best critical comment made about tailor-made Indian pitches to assist spin bowlers has come from middle-order batsman Brijesh Patel in the mid-Seventies. He said, "We prepare pitches to suit our spinners, but the irony is that the spinners from the opposition exploit these." There was an aspect of introspection in the comment which was heartening. The particular season was 1976-77 and Tony Greig had brought to India the England side with a mission, which was to win as comprehensively as possible. In fact, the rubber was decided after three Tests and the Indian team, under Bishen Singh Bedi, looked totally inadequate. India did win the fourth Test in Bangalore, but it was just a consolation and that too a poor one.
Ironically, England had only one quality slow bowler in the left-armer Derek Underwood, who was supported by the fastish offbreaks trundled by the captain. India had three world class spinners in the captain, B.S. Chandrasekhar and E.A.S. Prasanna, but the England batsmen handled them with aplomb, despite the ball turning quite soon in every Test match.
Against a superior side, there is nothing really that can be described as the home advantage. This has been seen numerous times against the West Indies and Australia. In 1969-70, the Indian captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was sure that spin bowling would do the trick against the Australians led by Bill Lawry. The threat of freak spinner John Gleeson had been seen off and he did not figure in all the Tests. Bobby Simpson and Bob Cowper had retired and they were the two who spun India to defeat in Sydney in the previous rubber.
But lo and behold Australia came up with a trump card in off-break bowler, Ashley Mallett, who got more wickets than Prasanna did. The Australian attack had the proper balance and the team won the rubber by three Tests to one and all that one could talk about was the Indian batting being disappointing and in contrast, the Australian batsmen handling the Indian spinners with great skill.
If there is anything like home advantage that could be exploited by spin bowling, then why did not the authorities produce Kanpur type pitches in the three Tests. Either they did not know how to or they did not have enough faith in their spinners. The fear of any such move backfiring was on the back of their minds. The balanced attack is always essential and too much reliance on the vagaries of a pitch is always fraught with danger.