There was a time, not too long ago, when everyone on social media had an opinion about whether Pineapple went with pizza.
Those who’d actually tried the dish - a pizza with a Pineapple topping - were in the minority, but it almost became an unwritten rule that, if you had a Facebook or Twitter account, you simply had to voice your opinion on the matter. Those days are long gone, but now, in 2021, it feels like ‘Pizza’ and ‘Pineapple’ have been replaced with another term starting with the letters P and I: pitch.
By now, it has become a norm. If you are a human being on this planet who happens to follow the sport of cricket, it has almost become an unwritten rule that you need to voice your opinion about wickets in the ongoing India vs England Test series. Each of the three Test matches in the series has seen discourse about the pitches overshadow the actual contest between bat and ball and people have tended to take stances based on their allegiance.
This trend, which is completely organic, began on the very first day of the tour when fans - Indian fans, specifically - chastised the accidental Chennai curator for dishing out a lifeless deck. In no time, though, those cries about the wicket in the first Test in Chennai compounded when the pitch, out of nowhere, turned into a minefield on Days 4 and 5, essentially handing England victory.
But if the pitch in the first Test divided opinions, the wicket in the second almost resulted in World War III. India comprehensively beat England in the second Test on a wicket that exploded from the very first over of the game and, in internet terms, debates about the pitch turned into a “proper s***show”. While those who defended the pitch accused Englishmen of hypocrisy - worshipping green tracks and looking down upon dust bowls - their counterparts wanted India to be docked World Test Championship Points for producing a ‘sandpit unfit for Test cricket’.
So, naturally, it was almost inevitable that there were going to be adverse reactions unless the pitch for the third Test - a pink-ball affair in the world’s largest stadium - was near perfect. Spoiler alert - it was not.
The pink-ball Test between India and England - which, in recent memory, was the most hyped red-ball game in India in quite some time - astonishingly lasted just over five sessions. The game, which produced a result in under 150 overs, was a literal minefield for the batsmen, with remarkably a wicket falling for every 12.9 runs scored. Eventually, India ended up winning the Test comprehensively, by 10 wickets, but, unlike the second Test, the wicket at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad has not been spared by even the fiercest of India supporters.
And there is a reason for that. Part of it is because, unlike in Chennai, India themselves only lasted 53.2 overs in the third Test. The argument that, “Ha ha. The pitch was fine. Look at how India batted” here, rendered invalid. Both sides equally struggled versus spin - spinners accounted for 28 of the 30 wickets to fall and averaged a ludicrous 8.82 - and that Joe Root, a part-time spinner with a bowling average north of 40, managed to take 5/8, spoke volumes about how disproportionately the wicket assisted spin. So people - well, at least those not associated with the BCCI - have unanimously agreed that the unplayable conditions effectively took skill out of the equation and turned the contest into a lottery.
What has been interesting to see, however, is how it’s been the pitch that has come under the firing line. Scyld Berry of The Telegraph described the Ahmedabad pitch as an “unfit pitch that was no advert for Test cricket” and while it has to be said that not many have expressed such disgust towards the wicket, the overarching view has been that what we saw across two days in Ahmedabad, with regards to the wicket, was not up to Test level.
Not everyone has been in agreement with this viewpoint, of course. Both Indian skipper Virat Kohli and the highest run-getter in the game, Rohit Sharma, claimed that the Ahmedabad wicket was far less demonic than the Chennai wicket in the second Test - particularly pointing how it was the ‘straighter’ deliveries which dismissed the batsmen - and insisted that it was some extremely substandard batting from both sides that resulted in an accelerated finish.
Now it is worth looking at this point. Factually, both Kohli and Rohit are not wrong. 21 of the 28 wickets that fell to spin bowling was induced by the straighter ball, meaning that it was not really the sharp turn that ended up undoing the batsmen. However, to merely put the blame on batsmen - in order to defend the wicket - is pretty myopic and fatuous. Indeed, the batsmen were not dismissed by the spinning balls but that does not mean spin had no part to play in their dismissals.
Like Alastair Cook pointed out on Channel 4, the straighter deliveries only deceived batsmen because there were a plethora of other deliveries that turned square. Deliveries bowled by the slower bowlers were turning over 6 degrees consistently - by far the highest figure in this series - and eventually inconsistent turn in the wicket meant that anticipating turn, batsmen ended up missing the ones that went with the arm. This explains why 19 of the 28 wickets to fall for the spin were either bowled or LBW.
But the question to be raised here is - was it the pitch that was really to blame?
For starters - and this was something stressed by Rohit Sharma on Wednesday - the pitch was no way as diabolic as the Chennai wicket in the second Test. Yes, India managed to score over 500 runs across innings in the second game, but, regardless, the wicket was poor - there was an inconsistent bounce from the very first hour and there was excessive explosion off the surface which made the ball jump capriciously almost from ball one. In Ahmedabad, though, the wicket had no such demons. The carry was true, the bounce was consistent and, despite the landing area for the quicks being problematic, the wicket did not disintegrate as much as the Chennai surface. Yet, the game ended in under two days. So how could it be possible for a Test to last just five sessions if the pitch was not unplayable?
This is not something that has been widely discussed, but it is very well possible that the volatile nature of the second Test could be attributed to a combination of the pink SG ball and the dry wicket. The third Test between India and England in Ahmedabad was just the second-ever pink-ball Test played with the SG ball in India - the domestic matches used the Kookaburra. And while the pitch in the maiden pink-ball Test at the Eden last year followed the guidelines required for a pink-ball game - a wicket not too dry with plenty of grass left behind in order to help the ball sustain its shine - the curators in Ahmedabad ventured into the unknown by preparing a dry wicket conducive for spin bowling - something never done before in international cricket.
And, as was evident from the atrocity that happened across two days in Ahmedabad, a combination of the SG pink ball, which has an extra layer of lacquer, and a dry wicket turned out to be a recipe for disaster. Inconsistent turn coupled with the ball skidding off the surface rapidly made batting a lottery, so much so that no batsmen - regardless of whether they were set or new to the crease - stood any chance once the spinners came on.
Some, like Kohli, will argue that the batsmen made the pitch look far more treacherous than it actually was. But that is simply not true. That England and India at one stage in their first innings were 74/2 and 98/2 was purely down to the fact that both sides made the most of the bowling team trying to extract something out of the wicket for the quicker bowlers. Once the two sides brought spinners to bowl in tandem, it was pretty much all over for the batting team: England, in their first innings, lost 57/8 once Ashwin and Axar started bowling together while India, once Root and Leach started bowling in tandem, lost 30/6. England were also consequently bowled out for 81 in the second innings, where India did not utilize a single over of pace. In short, the Ahmedabad Test produced conditions that were simply unfit for Test cricket.
The debate - and the mystery - is whether the pitch exacerbated the situation because it was played with an SG pink-ball that was not suitable for five-day cricket or if the pink cherry was innocent and it merely behaved like any other ball would have, on that wicket. The excruciating and exasperating part, however, is that there is no way to know which of the two aforementioned statements are true. For only two pink-ball games have been played in India, ever, and thus it is impossible to decode what really went wrong in Ahmedabad.
Which is precisely why there is a desperate need for the BCCI to restrain from hosting day-night Tests in the future until and unless the pink SG ball is tested thoroughly across all kinds of surfaces in domestic cricket. Owing to the Kookaburra ball having been used in the pink-ball games in domestic cricket, the SG pink-ball - which to date only has two matches under its belt - remains an enigma. And what we have learnt from the Ahmedabad game is that owing to the mystery surrounding the pink SG ball, there is every chance for Tests to go horrendously wrong.
And at a time when Test cricket is trying desperately to stay relevant - sure, never in this century has Test cricket been more interesting, but that does not make up for the fact that viewership is dwindling and white-ball cricket is the main source of revenue - there can be simply no room for experimentation which even has the slightest of potential to result in the atrocity that went on in Ahmedabad. Regardless of the result and the manner in which the wickets tumbled, the fact remains that the third Test ended up disgracing the entire sport.
But while it is easy, from here, to say that the BCCI should not host pink-ball games, it is also imperative to be a bit realistic and pragmatic - with a venue like the Narendra Modi Stadium at their disposal, it will be ludicrous to think that the board will refrain from hosting day-night Tests. The sheer revenue it will bring in will, obviously, force the board into playing many more pink-ball Tests. And yes, this despite what went on yesterday in Ahmedabad.
There can, however, yet be two utilitarian solutions that could help the board host pink-ball Tests whilst simultaneously ensuring an Ahmedabad-esque farce does not occur. The first is, of course, to fast-track trials of the SG pink-ball in first-class cricket and put it through all kinds of rigours. This is something that Cricket Australia did efficiently seven years ago and it helped them not only gauge how the pink ball behaved but made them understand what they needed to do - with respect to the pitch - to host Test matches.
India did this, of course, with the Kookaburra balls three seasons ago in the Duleep Trophy but those learnings are, essentially, of no use now, given what’s being used is an SG ball now. Exposing the pink SG ball to all kinds of soils and surfaces across the country could help curators understand patterns and behaviors and thereby help them in preparing wickets that will both ensure home advantage and stop two-day games from unfolding. This will also be key to understanding whether the SG Pink ball itself is the problem; if it’s inherently flawed.
The second solution is also Australian. CA have essentially realized that Adelaide, predominantly, due to its non-abrasive nature, is the perfect fit to host pink-ball Tests and have made it the country’s pink-ball centre (though both Gabba and Perth have hosted the odd day-night matches). Recently, Josh Hazlewood also spoke about the same and revealed why certain venues are not great fits for the day-night Test.
“He [curator Damian Hough] has got the wicket perfect at Adelaide for a pink-ball Test. A few grounds around Australia are too abrasive or too hard, such as the Gabba or Perth. Those wickets are too hard for a pink ball, it goes quite soft after a certain amount of time,” Hazlewood had said prior to the India series.
So a Motera might not be an ideal fit to host a pink-ball game due to a host of factors but an Eden - like we saw last year - or a Dharamsala might be. And maybe, it might be a necessity to strictly adhere to leaving a significant amount of grass behind on the wicket in order to help the pink-ball sustain itself. To help India extract a result out of the game - and to deprive England of any advantage - the curator did not do the same in the third Test, and the repercussions were evident.
Ultimately, though, what transpired across two days in Ahmedabad needs to be viewed as a lesson. Yes, the game ending in under two days was less than ideal but it has to be remembered that day-night cricket is a format that is in its embryonic stage - to date, only 16 pink-ball games have been played. Hence, mistakes are bound to happen.
What’s important now is for the BCCI to learn from the bad experience and strive for improvement. Will they do it? That remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: there will be incessant whining about the pitch come March 4 and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.