Should home captains be allowed to demand made-to-order pitches? What happens then to the concept of ‘sporting’ pitches and even more so the ideal of fair play, which is deemed intrinsic to cricket? MS Dhoni’s repeated statements over the past month that he wants turners for the Tests against England have evoked widespread debate and controversy, drawing in people from all over the world including players, administrators and fans.
Some, like former Australia captain Steve Waugh, believe this would be detrimental to the spirit of the game. Waugh believes that teams should be able to prove themselves in all conditions, without contriving one to suit them.
Another great Aussie, Shane Warne, thinks Dhoni’s sustained petitioning for turners is actually gamesmanship.
Warne speculates that by speaking about pitches repeatedly, Dhoni is putting pressure on the England team, knowing their susceptibility to spin.
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A few, however, have even taken a cynical point of view stating Dhoni is afraid of losing yet another series and therefore wants to ensure the England team has no chance of survival.
Collating these various points of view, two distinct schools of thought emerge: first, purists are aghast that a captain should have the temerity to intrude into an aspect of play that lies outside his jurisdiction; the second in which realists argue that since the captain’s head is on the block, he should have his way.
I think there are merits in both points of view, but am inclined to go with the second for two reasons. One, the charm and challenge in cricket is that it’s played in vastly different conditions.
Secondly, I believe that by-and-large, a captain has a say, not just in India or the sub-continent but everywhere in the world.
Let’s get into both these aspects in some detail. There is not much anybody can do about the weather conditions in different countries. Some are hot, some not so hot, some distinctly cold. Moreover, some countries play cricket in summer, others in winter and some in tropical climes.
In a sense, the weather has a direct bearing on the ground conditions and pitches in different countries, but even if modern curating methods allow replicating, say, an Australian pitch in India, I would say it’s a no-go.
Standardisation of playing surfaces would rob the game of the richness which stems from the vicissitude of pitches. It is this richness which makes cricket such a great sport, because it imposes on its players the need to adapt and excel in different conditions.
The fact that Dennis Lillee and Shane Warne, arguably the greatest fast bowler and greatest spinner to have played the game, could not make such a huge impact in the sub- continent at least allows scope for debate.
The other point is that no country would reduce its own prospects by deliberately preparing a pitch that does not help its own team.
That would be downright foolish.
For instance, last season, the Australia-India Perth Test was played on a flier and finished in under three days. Was that a fair pitch on which to play? Why should the argument change when India opts to prepare turning pitches for teams which are not from the sub-continent.
Of course, in neither case is a pitch which finishes a Test in three days desirable. It then transgresses the test of skills, which is what spectators want to see, and becomes one of survival because of outrageous conditions. Not just fans and players, in the modern game it impacts sponsors, broadcasters et al so it is bad news all round.
What’s important is that meeting the captain’s demand does not demean this game. Also, the home team must be capable of exploiting the conditions and not take victory for granted.
The first day’s play in the second Test at Wankhede, where the ball turned from the first session itself, has thrown not only the challenge of survival to England but also to India.
(The writer is a seasoned journalist)