For the better part of the third day of the recently concluded Mohali Test match between India and South Africa, I was not near a television. Wandering around the Chandigarh Club, where I was attending a literature festival along with some friends, I would get intermittent updates. The day began with India in a strong position, with Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, arguably India’s two strongest Test batsmen, holding the fort. At one point in the morning, they were comfortably placed at 160 for 2. The next time I found myself in front of a screen, the score had shifted dramatically to 9 for 190, a free fall of 7 wickets for a meager 30 runs in just over an hour. The Great Indian Collapse 2.0?
As it turned out, I hadn’t seen the half of it. Facing a target of 218, the shell-shocked South Africans, who were seeing demons everywhere on the pitch, sent out all-rounder Vernon Philander to open the batting. Ravindra Jadeja bowled the second delivery that Philander faced: a quick delivery that didn’t turn at all; just kept coming back in to the batsman with the left-armer’s round-the-wicket angle. Philander fumbled around, petrified of spin that just wasn’t there, and was trapped plumb in front of the wicket. In the very next over, the third of the innings, off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin bowled the delivery that Philander must have seen inside his head: a loopy drifter that pitched on off-stump and straightened just enough to take Faf du Plessis’ edge, which carried comfortably to first slip. In Jadeja’s next over, Hashim Amla, one of the world’s finest Test batsmen, shouldered arms to a Jadeja length ball on middle stump and was bowled neck and crop.
The Indian spin trap was ravenous and it had just started feeding on yet another touring squad. South Africa was bowled out for 109 before the end of the third day, just as I was finishing a late lunch.
The Indian spin trap was ravenous and it had just started feeding on yet another touring squad. South Africa was bowled out for 109 before the end of the third day, just as I was finishing a late lunch. Jadeja finished with the eye-popping figures of 11.5-4-21-5, a match haul of 8-76 that predictably won him the Man of the Match award. By the next day, the headline makers were having a field day. The western media, in particular, wasted no time in building the familiar narrative of the big bad Indian pitches: “inferior”, “un-sportsmanlike”, “doctored” and so on.
To understand the magnitude and the frequency of these allegations, you have to gauge three interconnected mythologies of the cricket world. Let us tackle them one by one.
Spin is “mysterious” while pace reveals character
We’ve heard it before and with a sickening regularity: victories built on the strength of spinners are attributed to “mystery”. Nasser Hussain was perhaps the first captain to use the term “mystery spin” after suffering yet another humiliating defeat at the hands of Muttiah Muralitharan. He was, however, gracious enough to acknowledge that the real problem was the paucity of high-quality spinners in England. Others have not been as kind, however. Take Faf du Plessis, for instance. Before the Mohali encounter, one of South Africa’s most senior batsmen said that he “expected the worst” out of the pitch. Midway into the match, he said that the pitch was “not good for cricket” and “not international standard”. Never mind the fact that a green top with exaggerated pace, bounce and lateral movement is never seen to be bad for cricket: instead, it is seen as a “test of character” and a “trial by pace” for batsmen.
India’s home advantage is “unfair” while England or New Zealand’s is a “challenge”
Every host nation prepares pitches keeping in mind its strengths and weaknesses. So you have New Zealand preparing pitches so green that one can barely distinguish it from the outfield. I once watched VVS Laxman face up to Daryl Tuffey (by no means a world-beating fast bowler) in a pitch so moist that there was a faint reflection of Laxman’s bat on it. Needless to say, VVS was getting beaten every other ball. That Test ended in less than three days, with 3 out of 4 innings ending with less than 150 on board. But nobody thought this was “un-sportsmanlike” or “bad for cricket”. Why then the raised eyebrows when India prepares turning tracks to aid its spinners? Moreover, it’s not as if India hasn’t suffered because of dustbowls: nobody can forget the highly occasional left-arm spin of Michael Clarke picking up six Indian wickets for just nine runs in Mumbai.
Batsmen who score runs in the subcontinent are “flat-track bullies” while Australian batsmen who feast in Sydney and Adelaide are geniuses
The case of Michael Hussey is quite instructive here: I think he was a great batsman and one of the most consistent performers in world cricket. However, his record outside Australia doesn’t quite do justice to his “Mr Cricket” persona. Meanwhile, batsmen like Mahela Jayawerdena and Cheteshwar Pujara are targeted for their bulk of runs in Asia. If scoring runs was so easy here, why did people like Ponting and Hussey struggle so often? Given their ability, they should have been able to score vast amounts of runs at a frenetic pace, like Virender Sehwag did, for example.
South Africa have in their ranks AB de Villiers, the colossus of modern-day batting. He was unstoppable in the ODI series and for a brief period of time, threatened to run away with the Mohali Test as well. Rather than indulge in ill-advised potshots at the pitches and their opponents, Du Plessis and co. should follow AB and let their performances speak.