It’s not hard to guess what is that one essential element which is the talk of the town before every single match, especially during a home series in India. It’s not the players, the rivalry between the two teams, and definitely not how the teams are stacked up against each other. It’s the all-important pitch.
This one subject which will take center stage every time there’s a cricket match, while everything else will become a mere footnote. After attending several press conferences as a journalist – and conducting a few as media manager of the Indian cricket team – I can safely say that deciphering the nature of the pitch is one of the biggest tasks for the sports media.
Captains and coaches arrive at media interactions expecting a barrage of queries relating to the pitch. The pitch itself is a highly anticipated opponent; it can be compared with Mitchell Starc bowling at you at the pace of 140 kmph. It has the ability to get on your nerves. And even India coach Anil Kumble succumbed to it. While addressing the media and after fending three-four ‘bouncers’ on the pitch issue, he decided to hook one of them. “Can we move on? It’s 22 yards, it won’t be different here,” remarked Kumble, who is known for his patience and poise.
One of the classic incidents relating to questions about the pitch occured during India’s tour of Pakistan in 2006. Everyone was expecting a green top, keeping in mind that Pakistan had Shoaib Akhtar and company to exploit the conditions. But the pitch at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore turned out to be a batting beauty.
Opening the batting, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag posted 410 runs. The rumour that Pakistan batsmen didn’t want a green top, as that would have exposed their technical deficiencies, spread like wildfire. The post-match press conference was a sight to behold. Inzamam-Ul-Haq was asked a series of questions about the wicket. He, characteristically, finally used the straight bat. “Dekhiye, main team ka kaptaan hoon, groundsman nahin hoon (I’m the captain, not the groundsman),” he shot back when he ran out of patience.
How many people know the name of the curator at Lord’s or the pitch slab maker of Melbourne Cricket Ground? But Daljeet Singh, the man behind the pitches in India, is as prominent a figure in our country as Ravi Shastri or Kapil Dev. Everyone wants a peek into his knowledge on pitch making. He is widely quoted and is often the most sought-after man by the media before a match. Sometimes to an extent that he has to keep his phone on silent.
In his hometown Mohali, Daljeet used to organize a ‘pitch tour’ for the touring media before the start of a match – the first and only one of its kind. As a sports reporter, you are expected to have the knowledge a pitch maker boasts of. This is the coveted 'exclusive information' that you aspire for.
The most exasperating part of the pitch debate is that Indian fans are fine with the bouncy pitches of Australia or the swinging conditions of England. They assert that that conquering these ‘challenges’ is imperative for every Indian cricketer. Ironically, when it comes to India, the same fans don’t want too much spin in the wicket. Every time there is extra turn or a variable bounce in the pitch, murmurs of the team’s influence on the pitch preparation start brewing. Commentators start commenting about it and the media too joins in.
In 2015, the wicket at Perth for an Australia-New Zealand match had such big cracks that the toe of the bat could go in it. During a match in the 2015 Ashes series, Australia were at 5-21 at one stage and finally bowled out for 60. The match was over in less than three days, but there wasn’t a single remark on the conditions of the wicket. The narrative around the match instead focused on the English seam bowlers’ excellence in their backyard. And the Australian batsmen’s failure at playing anything that deviates from the pitch.
The mere thought of something like this happening in India on a turning track is enough to set alarm bells ringing. Forget the foreign media, the Indian sports reporters themselves would be attacking our team and administrators who have dished out such a ‘dust bowl’. And how it will drag Indian cricket back to the 80s and 90s.
The visiting media contingent makes the most of all this and reports widely on the pitches in India. They create hype about our spinning tracks and we fall for it. The analysis generally goes like this: "The pitches in India aren’t good for cricket and one shouldn’t expect a touring side to do well here.” But the tables are turned when the result is the other way around. The Indian team becomes that worthless bunch that can’t perform on its home grounds. The last Test against Australia in Pune was a classic example of this.
It is but natural that members of the Indian team are bound to feel irritated by this kind of reporting. When they tour England, they don’t expect batting beauties. And when they are in South Africa, they won’t get rank turners. They are expected to overcome these challenges and grow as a cricketer. But why is the same not expected from touring teams? Why a green wicket a ‘sporting wicket’ and a turner is dubbed an ‘akhada’ (wrestling ground)?
Imagine the extent of our boredom if all tennis matches were to be played on hard courts. Tennis legends are those who adjust to the slowness of the clay, conquer the blades of grass and are swift to fine-tune their game for hard courts.
Why should cricket be any different? Let’s accept that Indian conditions will offer turn and bounce, and let’s move on. After all, it’s just a 22-yard strip – and that’s exactly what Kumble said.