When a team loses, it is a cliché to say the players didn’t want to win desperately enough. For the losers, that is both comfort and justification.
Desperation might be a strange quality to seek in sport. It can be inspirational, as when an Anil Kumble, broken jaw wired up, bowls in a Test match (and claims the wicket of Brian Lara). It can be disheartening as when players alter the condition of the ball with sandpaper in a win-at-all-costs approach.
India are beginning to show some desperation too. Skipper Rohit Sharma said at the end of the Indore Test which they lost on a turner that these were the kind of wickets India would like to play on at home. More significantly he said, “It was a collective decision in the team to play on pitches like these.” The implication — that the curators have been instructed to prepare such wickets — cannot be escaped.
Not a good advertisement
The result, a Test that lasted two days and a session, was neither good advertisement for the game, nor fair to the paying public. Of the 19 Tests in the last four years or so in India, only three have lasted five days. Television — the one entity that can put pressure on the home team to have sporting wickets that last the distance — lost nearly 30 playing days in that period.
About a decade ago when M.S. Dhoni was captain and gave instructions that a turner should be prepared at Eden Gardens against England, he was told by the then octogenarian curator Prabir Mukherjee that this was “immoral”. It was an interesting response, but few curators can go against the wishes of the Indian captain.
India lost that series because England’s spinners used the tracks better, while their batsmen led by Alastair Cooke were less troubled by India’s spinners. Not for the first time, India fell into a trap they had themselves set.
Unfair to the pacers
If India insist they are playing to their strengths in the current series by initially preparing slow wickets and then the sharp turner in Indore (the match was shifted from Dharamsala), they are insulting some fine fast bowlers they have produced since that England series long ago.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India, tired of the team losing to pace abroad finally gave instructions to leave grass on the pitches for domestic tournaments to encourage fast bowling. A whole bunch of fast bowlers emerged. Top teams had fast bowlers knocking on the doors of international cricket. It was a dramatic turnaround.
India won Test matches in England and South Africa and successive series in Australia. India’s fast bowlers attacked in packs — a thought that only existed in fantasies of the supporters in the 1970s and 80s.
Three-day matches dominated by spin nullify the efforts to have a more varied bowling attack with the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj and others who have won Tests for India both at home and away.
India have put in a lot of effort and money to unearth fast bowlers, bowlers who would have struggled to make it in the days when the belief was that only spin could win, and wickets were prepared accordingly.
It is a regressive step now to go back to the days of wickets that spin from the first half-hour of a match. There is no worse way of discouraging young and talented fast bowlers. We cannot go back to the days when spinners were ready to bowl the third over of the match, the token shine-removers banished from the attack for the rest of the innings.
Wicket preparation is not an exact science. I have reported Tests where the curator has assured everyone the ball would spin from day two only for the visiting medium pacers to claim 15 wickets in an India defeat! All curators like to be in the good books of the BCCI, and hate to risk their jobs by preparing tracks that don’t help the home bowlers. But that is a short-sighted approach. Home advantage is understandable, but the balance to look for is not between the two teams but between bat and ball.
Desperation can be inspiring, or disheartening. Or embarrassing, as in the case of the mentality that produced the Indore pitch.