A makeshift chariot, more a buggy actually, prowled the outfield. It had space for two to stand, with a hand-stand to hold on to, and a few trial runs were taken on Wednesday. The prime ministers of India and Australia are expected to take a lap of the ground, soaking up the applause from a full house. Much of the pre-game focus has been on the two leaders but the most important cricketing piece of real estate lay in the centre, baking under the hot sun: the pitch will decide a lot more than just this Test match and the series.
The captains didn’t have any confusion about what’s the real important task on hand. “Yeah, the Prime Ministers of both countries are coming. Obviously, it’s an exciting time. For players, we’ve got a job at hand. So the talk is just around that… how we’re going to come on top of this Test match and try and do everything we can to win this Test,” Steve Smith would concur with that sentiment.
The 22 yards at Ahmedabad could well offer India the blueprint for future home series or trigger a scurrying retreat back to designer spin tracks. The Motera pitch is likely to be a throwback to older days, promising runs in the first innings before it winks at the spinners. If India win the game, with their batsmen and quality spinners making an impact, they might well turn to such tracks in the future. It’s no secret that the current Indian batsmen aren’t as good as the ones from the past against the spinning ball. The averages have plunged, players have lost spots, reputations have taken a hit, and gloss peeling off the spinners’ performances. If India win this Test, the batsmen in the team might be able to prevail on Rahul Dravid and Co. that this could be the way ahead.
If India lose this game, though, the repercussions would be interesting, depending on the nature of their defeat. It might harden the coach’s thought process further and he might see Indore as an aberration and continue digging up turners. As it is, Dravid has been a constant presence around the pitch. Perhaps, he has had more conversations with the curators as a coach than he ever had as a player. Not just pre-game, but in Indore, he was out there even at the lunch break on the opening day, chatting with the curator. If India lose, the argument could turn to pointing out that, all said and done, India have lost just three Tests since 2013 on largely spin tracks. Why drastically change a winning formula?
Such are the stakes. Not all the Tests in the decade have been played on rank turners but ever since they ambushed the South Africans on designer tracks in 2015, the pitches have generally been loaded towards spin. And as Dravid admitted on Tuesday, the World Test Championship (WTC) pressure has tilted that equation even more. Considering they lost to Australia in Pune on one such track, and now again in Indore, the tendency to produce sandpits might stop if they win here. Perhaps the realisation might sink in that they don’t need to bring out the rakes, bake the soil, selectively water it on certain spots, and consciously under-prepare tracks.
Self-interest forces rethink
For that to happen, though, India would need to convincingly win the Test. It also says much about their batting woes that India has come to a rethink about the wisdom of rank turners. Not any notion of ‘fair play’ or any moralistic definition of a ‘good Test pitch’ but ironically, it will be self-interest that can drive India’s move. It’s possible that the result in Ahmedabad can trigger such philosophical changes.
Skipper Rohit Sharma, who has three home hundreds, is the rare exception to the norm as there has been a lack of clarity in the methods deployed by Indian batsmen against quality spin. The captain was asked if he had conveyed any message to his batsmen.
“Leave the conditions outside of it. You just got to go and score runs, find ways to score runs. And that is the talk within the group. How challenging the pitches are, how much is it turning, how much is it seaming, we’re trying to keep all of that away. Conditions are there for us to play and you’ve got to find a way to score runs whatever the pitches you play on. That is the talk. We’re just trying to figure out more methods of coming out on top when the pitches are challenging,” Rohit said.
Perfect rationale that but when read again, it can sound as if Rohit is talking about ‘conditions’ given to them in some other country. As if Indians are the visiting team here. But his gauntlet comes from a simple position: This is the pitch we have prepared, that we want for WTC final qualification, and it’s up to the batsmen to find a way. That wisdom of challenging their own batsmen can perhaps change if India find a way to win convincingly in Ahmedabad.
It was here, at an earlier avatar of the stadium when it was just Motera and not named after the current Indian prime minister, that Sunil Gavaskar scored his historical 10,000th Test run. It’s where Kapil Dev became the highest Test wicket-taker in the world. Now, it’s where Indian spin strategy can take a crucial pivot.