Flat tracks are bane of Test cricket

Flat tracks are bane of Test cricket

Motera was a dampner after a rivetting Aus series

Last November, despite India stumbling in the first hour of the Test to slump to 32 for four, they walked away with an honourable draw against a Sri Lankan side that included the great Muttiah Muralitharan.

The world’s leading wicket-taker was reduced to an also-ran by the flat nature of the Motera surface, prompting Sunil Gavaskar to call for the curator to be involved in the laying of India’s national highways!

Despite that early stutter, the Test produced upwards of 1500 runs and yielded fewer than 25 wickets. Batsman after batsman helped himself to easy runs, a veritable feast of stroke-making laid out as the ball came nicely on to the bat, without any deviation, and disappeared off it at the rate of knots.

Dhiraj Parsana had pointed to the lack of skills of the bowlers, Muralitharan included, then to defend his creation. On the eve of the drawn first Test against New Zealand, the curator had promised a ‘sporting’ surface – help for the fast bowlers on day one, a batting beauty on days two and three, and considerable assistance for the tweakers on the final two days. Heights of optimism, surely!

Apart from one crazy hour on the fourth evening, which had nothing to do with the pitch, there was again absolutely no joy for the bowlers over five days. Admittedly, the entire ground had been submerged under ten feet of water after three hours of heavy rains, but that was in early August and didn’t significantly hamper preparations.

If anything, the sub-surface moisture should have assisted Parsana in the production of a deck that ought to have seen an equal contest between bat and ball. Instead, what we got was a slow, low track that became increasingly slower and lower, so much so that on Monday’s final day, not even a bowler as skilled as Daniel Vettori could make so much as an impression on Harbhajan Singh, let alone VVS Laxman.

The artificial excitement generated by Chris Martin’s extraordinary swing-driven burst on Sunday evening must not camouflage the fact that once again, Motera provided a surface ill-suited to Test cricket. Just when the longer version was getting the impetus it so sorely requires in the shape of classics in Mohali and Bangalore against Australia comes this dampener, a grim battle of attrition and patience rather than skills and ability.

It’s all fine to blame stalemates on defensive postures and the adoption of safety-first tactics, but what’s the point of the whole exercise if five days of effort in great heat is negated by an unresponsive playing surface. The Lanka Test at least produced tremendous stroke-making; even that was denied to the few faithfuls here, except for when Virender Sehwag was going hammer and tongs on day one.

Sehwag, of course, is hardly the yardstick against which a pitch must be judged. Conditions have mattered little to India’s vice-captain. His quality, as well as that of the pitch, were put in perspective by subsequent events; the scoring rate only occasionally flirted with three runs an over, bowling strike rates were even less edifying.

Nowhere does the playing surface attract as much attention and scrutiny as it does in India. Thankfully, the days of designer pitches that liberally dotted the spectrum in the early to mid-90s, during the Wadekar-Azharuddin era, are behind us; India can no longer be accused of winning only on dust bowls, but to ‘gift’ accomplished bowlers like Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan with such docile, unyielding pitches as the one at Motera is hardly done.

In the aftermath of the Lanka Test, the Board of Control for Cricket in India revamped its Ground and Pitch Committee. Parsana was one of two men – the other being Committee head Daljit Singh – not to be included in the new panel, and it’s not difficult to see why.

India’s ascension to the number one spot in the Test rankings has spawned a whole new interest in Test cricket. Pitches such as the one at the Sardar Patel Gujarat stadium are hardly advertisements for Test cricket, and will do little to sustain that interest. The time has come to do away with the cussed rotation system of allotting matches, and reward those centres that provide the groundwork for entertaining, absorbing cricket.

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