January 20, 2006

Ground realities need to be addressed to save Test cricket

By H Natarajan

It was like administering CPR after rigor mortis had set in. That how the bowlers on either side must have felt bowling on the Gaddafi Stadium rectangle. As a contest, the Lahore Test between India and Pakistan was killed even before a ball was bowled.

The home side had two of the fastest bowlers in the world. The team was on a high after beating Michael Vaughan’s team that had arrived in Pakistan with the halo of the Ashes victory around their heads. And yet Pakistan squandered away all the advantages by rolling out a pitch that was scandalously shameful and devoid of purpose. Unless having 50 spectators and 100 files inside the stadium count for enthusiasm and economic sense.

Mohammad Yousuf raised visions of a double hundred, Younis Khan missed his double hundred by a run, Shahid Afridi and Kamran Akmal got centuries at under run a ball, Virender Sehwag torpedoed to the second-fastest double century in Tests and Rahul Dravid predictably got a triple-digit score. At the end of it all, the run-feast left a bad taste even in the batsmen’s mouths with major beneficiaries from either expressing their displeasure at the meaninglessly lopsided track. There was no professional satisfaction to be derived on such a wicket. And the Test ended with even the first innings incomplete; just eight wickets were lost in five days, two of those being run outs.

Inzamam-ul-Haq made his disgust known to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Shariyar Khan. The latter, in turn, summoned the chief curator to present his defense. If Inzamam, coach Bob Woolmer and the PCB mandarins had all been proactive than reactive, this sorry situation could well have been prevented.

Imran Khan criticised the Pakistan team management for its failure in ensuring a seaming track at Lahore. Woolmer reacted by accusing Imran of being “irresponsible” because ICC regulations do not permit interference in pitch preparations. If that’s the case, has Inzamam not commited a breach by asking the curator of the second Test at Faisalabad by demanding what he wants? Inzamam briefed newspersons ahead of the Test: “I have told them (groundmen) to leave some grass on it, dry grass, which lasts out for five days.”

Any curator in India will tell you (maybe not openly) that they have been forced to shave grass off the wicket after the home captain landed at the venue and instructed them to do so. There is nothing secretive about that.

It’s the prerogative of the home team to get a wicket advantageous to its bowler, and it’s the captain and the coach who should be in the forefront in trying to get the team’s need. I remember Ajit Wadekar, when he was the Indian team coach, sending Prashant Vaidya well in advance to Nagpur (the player’s hometown) to interact with the groundsman and get the kind of pitch the team needed for the Test.

For a generation that has grown watching the abridged version of the game, Test cricket is a boring exercise. But for the true student of the game – and that includes most players - it’s Test cricket which is the real cricket. It’s in the extended format of the game that genuine quicks bowl with five slips and two gullies, testing the cranium of the batsmen. It’s in Test cricket that the skills of the batsmen to play on green tracks are tested. The contest between bat and ball is lot more fair, unlike in one-dayers where the bias in favour of the batsmen gets even more pronounced because of factors like the nature of the wicket and the rules.

And wickets like the one we saw at Gaddafi Stadium makes a mockery of the game. It’s such matches that will eventually make Test matches commercially unviable forcing its extinction. The International Cricket Council needs to step in and act in a manner befitting of a regulatory body to prevent such a nonsense again. There has to be tough laws in place and exemplary punishment for those flouting it. There must be accountability.

There is increasing disenchantment against the ICC – the latest being India’s bold decision not to participate in the Champions Trophy after this year. India’s financial clout cannot be trifled with. The ICC would have learnt its lesson from its confrontation with ‘Richie Rich’ Kerry Packer. The apex body needs to wake up before India’s stand snowballs into a rebellion and culminates into its destruction.

I had the ‘privilege’ of covering the India-Sri Lanka run-orgy at the Premadasa Stadium in 1997. After Navjot Sidhu, Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin got hundreds for India, the home team ran riot with Roshan Mahanama and Sanath Jayasuriya batting together for two full days while adding 576 runs for the second wicket. Sri Lanka’s first innings went on and on and well into the final day before declaration came at 952 for six – the second wicket stand and the Sri Lankan total both record highs in all Test cricket. Jayasuriya got 340, Mahanama scored 225, Aravinda de Silva joined the feast with 126 and Arjuna Ranatunga missed his hundred by 14 runs. The bowlers were victims of a sadistic groundsman, with off-spinner Rajesh Chauhan conceding 276 runs in 78 overs. But even this Test was not such a kill-joy as the one that mercifully ended at the Gaddafi Stadium on Wednesday.

Coincidentally, it was in the month of January that India were involved in two Test matches where two more 400-plus partnerships were recorded. The first was at Chennai in 1982 when Keith Fletcher put India into bat to see 415 runs added for the third wicket. Dilip Vengsarkar and Gundappa Viswanath added 99 runs before the latter retired hurt. Yashpal Sharma filled in the breach to boost the third wicket partnership by another 316 runs. A year later at Hyderabad (Sind), Mudassar Nazar and Javed Miandad added 451 runs for the third wicket against India.

India and Pakistan have been the biggest culprits in preparing pitches as shameful as the one we saw at Lahore. One remembers vividly the great Dennis Lillee finishing the 1979-80 three-Test series in Pakistan with three wickets (all in one innings) from three Tests at over hundred runs apiece!

When millions of dollars and careers of players are at stake, it’s non-negotiable that erudite and responsible men with scientific knowledge in the art of making pitches are entrusted with the job. The paying public of Lahore had every right to feel cheated. Many of them would have come to the ground to see Sachin Tendulkar batting in what could well be his last tour to Pakistan. But thanks to the pitch, they were denied of the great man even walking into the middle with his pads on.

As I watched the Lahore Test, my memories went back to the Tests at Kanpur, Sind and Colombo to the matches mentioned above, I also thought about a Test in England. It was in the summer of 1976 at the Kennington Oval that Viv Richards (291), Gordon Greenidge (85 not out) Roy Fredericks (71 and 86 not out), Lawrence Rowe (70), Clive Lloyd (84), Collis King (63) made merry on what was a perfect batting track. It was also on this wicket that Dennis Amiss got a double hundred for England. But, most staggeringly, it was on this lifeless track that one man rose like a colossus: the Rolls Royce among fast bowlers, Michael Holding, who got 14 wickets for 149 runs!

When Jim Laker took 19 Australia wickets in 1956, the question asked was: How did Tony Lock ended the Test at Old Trafford with just one wicket? History will ask with similar incredulity how Bob Willis, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel got a combined total of just two wickets between them on a track in which Holding wrought havoc.

Holding’s performance was like David Blaine’s magic - almost unreal. Reality dictates that pitches have to be prepared in a manner where there is reasonable chance of a contest between bat and ball.


At 2:13 pm, Blogger Rishi Gajria said...

Another really nice bit of writing. I agree about the Lahore pitch and the first test. But I do think that India is playing more test cricket and intends to do so in the future. To me, test cricket is still vibrant with a substantive audience. I do not think this fact is lost on all the administrators.
The pitch came in for heavy criticism. The Pakistanis may have prepared a dead track but they are cowering publicly about it. That tells you that everyone's aware about the kind of tracks test cricket needs to be played on. I personally feel that Pakistan will not experiment with their tracks. Beating England is one thing. England are a good test team. But their attack did not suit Pakistani conditions. They could not counter the Host's spin and never will(He He). They gave up pretty quickly too. Playing well in bits and spells. And I think thats the thinking Pakistanis ascribe to. I suspect that Inzamam is taking it only one step at a time. In his mind, India could defeat his side.


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