Let us begin with a question. Should the Kotla Test have lasted five days? Perhaps not, since India were comfortably ahead after South Africa’s first innings and in a position to enforce the follow-on.
With play called off early, the bowlers would have got ample rest, and the Proteas would have batted the next morning. But they did not, for Virat Kohli wanted to score some runs. Having already won the series, it was perhaps his prerogative that he wanted to bat again on his home ground. Alternately, the match could have ended earlier, with India winning by an innings or as big a margin if they needed to bat again.
Perhaps the Indian team management was intent on stretching the match to five days. This is where the argument about pitches in this Freedom Series comes to the fore. Was the Kotla pitch a good one? How did it compare to the Bangalore pitch where South Africa were bowled out on day one? If Nagpur was surely a bad pitch, then how does one rate Mohali in that sense?
One former Australian skipper came out on Twitter and described what, according to him, is the perfect template for a Test match pitch. By his standards, none of the four wickets in this recently concluded series qualify as Test wickets. Thankfully, that is not the standard of judgment.
Where is it written that a Test match ought to last five days? And if it must, in the name of competitive cricket and saving the longer format, why wasn’t there such a hullabaloo when the inaugural day/night Test finished in three days?
One answer here, relevant to this pitch debate, is that the duration of a cricket match is bound only by the performance of the 22 players involved. Sure, sometimes weather and pitch conditions do alter the basics, but usually that aspect is classified under ‘testing your skills’. Mind you, it isn’t testing your skills against pace on the first three days and then spin on the last two days, no. It is just, simply enough, ‘testing your skills’.
In that light, South Africa fell way short of the standard they have showcased for the past nine years on overseas tours. It was primarily down to this rebuilding phase they are in, and their young, new batsmen will take some time bedding in. It left Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers with a heap of responsibility on their shoulders, with Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy sharing some as well. The latter two failed miserably, especially Faf, who submitted to the very sight of Ravindra Jadeja, let alone his deliveries.
Amla’s poor run of form meant that he couldn’t get going, and for once AB was alone and unable to counter-attack the opposition into submission. A similar batting performance was seen in the Indian camp as well, and until the fourth Test, their esteemed middle order couldn’t get its bearing right. Even so, Ajinkya Rahane’s twin hundreds in Delhi went quite a long way to rectifying that bit.
The question to ask here, which highlights the prime issue of pitches again, is whether the Indian team management is content using such wickets in the future as well.
The answer lies in their complaints after the series-deciding Mumbai ODI. The Indian team director and his assistant coaches infamously ranted against the pitch curator there. Even the captain spoke of his helplessness on a pitch that gave nothing to the bowlers, especially their spinners. They were seeking a little home advantage in ODIs as well.
And they should, playing at home merits that bit. But then, if you only need a little, by that yardstick shouldn’t the pitches reflect as much? If Simon Harmer could turn the ball as much as R Ashwin on that raging Nagpur turner, what is the point? Are they similar bowlers? No, and this should come out from what they are extracting off the pitch.
Mohali was still better in comparison, where the batsmen on both sides were guilty of playing false shots. And in that respect, Bangalore-Delhi stood out. They were true-blue Indian pitches with the right amount of bounce for pacers, reverse swing a little later, and just the right help for spinners who were willing to extract something from the wicket. Even the batsmen could make merry.
Irrespective of the outcome of ICC’s investigation of the Nagpur pitch, it shouldn’t be replicated. The underlying point being that yes, winning is important, but not in the garb of making a mockery of Test cricket. Victory at Kotla feels better than what was achieved in Nagpur, and Mohali to an extent.
Home advantage is all very fine, yet it should support both batsmen and bowlers, and from both teams. Hopefully that will reflect when New Zealand, England and Australia come calling next season.