Test takes extreme turn, Aussies get one back
India captain Rohit Sharma feels teams must play to their advantage, sees no harm in preparing spinning track
One can argue lottery strips like this bridge the gap between the skill sets of the two teams; India themselves have faced this before as they went down to the same opposition at Pune in 2017 when the unheralded Steve O'Keefe picked up 12 wickets in the match to bowl the visitors to victory on a raging turner.
While India stopped producing rank turners to such an extent after that game, they likely got spooked by what happened against England in the first Test of the 2021 series at Chennai. On a slow burner of a pitch, England won the toss and batted for more than two days. On a deteriorating surface, the hosts wilted on Day 5 to lose by 227 runs.
Since that Test, decks have more or less always had something in it for the spinners from the first session. This was predominantly done to take the toss out of the equation. The matches in Nagpur and New Delhi did have something from the first session but it wasn't extreme, the turn wasn't sharp and the degree of turn was lesser (the average degree in Indore was a full 2* higher when compared to Nagpur).
That exaggerated turn was very much in evidence even in the first session, with Sharma himself going for an uncharacteristic across the line swipe after seeing five balls of spin. But the captain, while expressing his sympathy towards the batters in the dressing room, said 'we will continue playing on these pitches'.
"When the series starts, we decide what kind of pitches we have to play on," he said in the post-match press conference. "This was everyone's call to play on such pitches. I don't think we are putting pressure on our own batters. When we win, everything looks good."
That last point is crucial. India have been dominating on these surfaces for so long and it's their prerogative to play on any surface that maximises their advantage of playing at home. The 36-year-old was keen to stress this point. He was also critical of former cricketers who criticised the surface.
"Former cricketers, I don’t think they’ve played on pitches like this. I don’t know, man, honestly speaking, this is the kind of pitches we want to play, this is our strength. When you’re playing at your home, you always play to your strength, not worry about what people outside are talking about. We want to play to our strength, and that strength is spin bowling and that batting depth. And everyone uses that advantage outside, so what’s wrong in that?
"We’ve got to do that as well, especially when we are getting results. If we were not getting the results, I would think otherwise, but I think we are playing well, we are getting the results that we want. Some batters are under pressure, but that’s okay. You cannot have all members of your team in good form, having a great time in the middle. That’s not going to happen. Even when you play outside, it’s not going to happen, so a few guys will go through that rough patch, but that’s okay."
Even though he didn't name check the batters in question, it was fairly obvious he was referring to the top-order who have not had the consistency you would usually associate with elite players. One reason why India have had to rely on the magic of their spinners or lower-order runs is the undeniable weakness of the batters in conditions they ought to be familiar with. Case in point, Virat Kohli --- till January 1, 2020, in Indian conditions, he averaged 68.42 across 39 games. Since then, he averages 25 in 10. Cheteshwar Pujara is another batter with a similarly skewed record. Till January 1, 2020, he averaged 59.84. Since then, it's 23.28. Sharma also. Till 2020, it was 88.33. Since? 45.85.
Sharma, even before this Test, was self aware when he made the point that they also could collapse in the face of quality spin bowling. So, why do they insist on rolling out decks that don't last three days? Batting coach, Vikram Rathour, alluded to the pressure of winning home games during the WTC cycle so as to give themselves the chance of qualifying for the final. "The thing is we do prefer playing on turning tracks," he had said after the first day. "That is our strength. Since the WTC started, there is more pressure on you to win home games. You want to win when you are playing at home."
Rathour has a point. Spin bowling or, to put it more clearly, spin bowling against opposition batters, is India's strength when playing at home. Since the WTC came into effect in 2019, eight out of the 16 Tests have finished inside three days in India. One has finished inside two days, with only three going into a fifth day, including a draw.
To be clear, India isn't the only side trying to maximise home advantage. Sharma himself said as much. "Games are not lasting for five days even outside India. Yesterday (Thursday), in South Africa, the game got over in three days. Australia as well, in the first Test match (against South Africa which lasted two days). It's about skills. People have to adapt. If the pitches are helping the bowlers, the batters need to try and test their skills. It's not always about making sure we are playing on flat wickets, the results don't come."
So, do not be surprised if a similar wicket awaits both teams in Ahmedabad. India knows the pitfalls of playing on this type of wicket but they are also categorical. They want to and will continue playing on it as long as it helps them in maximising home advantage.
Tests in India and no of days they have gone since the WTC began
* - Includes the only drawn match in the last 16 matches, against New Zealand in Kanpur
5 - Each of the last five Tests in India have not gone to a fourth day stretching back to the first Test against Sri Lanka last year.
1 Steve Smith is the first visiting captain to win multiple Tests in India since Alastair Cook in 2012 (Smith captained the side to a win in Pune in 2017)