‘No undue home advantage’ is how Virat Kohli shrugged off criticism with regard to the track at Nagpur in a match which India wrapped in under 3 days. South Africa’s 9-year, 15-test series long unbeaten streak was broken and it also marked a wonderful start to Kohli’s stint as the test team captain on home soil with a series win against the top-ranked test side. Ashwin who ended up match figures of 46-13-98-12 backed his skipper asking, ‘what's the problem with spin and bounce?.. It is about skill for batsmen to play it and counter it’. Team director Ravi Shastri added, ‘Nothing wrong with the pitches.. I have no qualms about it’. When a cricket match is over and players are questioned more about something other than individual/team accomplishments, you know the events through the course of the match have entered a contentious territory.
In an era of sheer batting domination the success of bowlers from either camp should have been a cause of joy for a cricket fan but instead has commanded critical reviews. 3 out of the 4 lowest team totals (17 innings in 5 tests overall) at Nagpur, a venue which has had 4 results and only 1 draw, were recorded in this match. This match came on the back of the grossly rain-affected Bengaluru test and another quick finish at Mohali. The match at Mohali recorded 2 out of 5 lowest totals (where a side has been dismissed completely) at the venue. South Africa’s first innings total of 214 at Bengaluru was the joint lowest total at the Chinnaswamy stadium.
A series featuring likes of Kohli, Amla, AB de Villiers has not seen a team total exceed 215 in completed 9 innings. 75 out of the 90 wickets in the series have fallen to spinners. Only four 50+ individual scores have been notched up and the wait for an individual hundred is still on. Some of these statistics are astounding, especially for tracks in early part of the cricket season in India; for example in the two Ranji trophy matches at Mohali during the current season 2 totals of 600+ were scored. All this has been put under the carpet of & being criticised in the name of what is popularly coined in cricket as ‘home advantage’.
Trivially, the home advantage should imply effortless adaptability/acclimatization for an outdoor sport, but the kind of impact the 22 yards have on the final outcome of a cricket match elaborates the scope in the current case. Those favouring perceivably supportive tracks for home team bowlers have a case in catalyzing result-oriented matches. Also, having such pitches doesn’t rule out the opposition outrightly as illustrated by India’s win on a lively Johannesburg track in 2006 & England’s triumph in 2012 on a Mumbai pitch bearing substantial turn & bounce. The subjectivity though, puts this approach of preparing pitches to opposition’s weakness on a thin-line separating tracks leading to result-driven matches and putting a venue’s repute at stake in case it goes too far like Nagpur & Trent Bridge, earlier in the year.
Given cricket’s intricacies it is almost impossible to define an ideal surface, and probably this wide range of possible environments renders versatility. A tame draw or a quick result in most cases suggests monopolistic domination of either the bat or ball and neither is a favourable outcome on a consistent basis. Intriguingly the position between these extremes is a direct consequence of the kind of surface on which the match is contested!
Since the turn of the millennium India has lost only 3 out of 26 test series at home; first against a strong South African side in 2000, later in 2004-05 against an Australian side in pursuit of the final frontier and latest versus well-balanced English outfit in 2012-13. Yet through these years, only a few instances of critical reviews regarding dust-bowls/rank-turners come to mind. In fact India’s famous wins in home conditions like Kolkata 2001 (vs Australia), Chennai 2008 (vs England), Kolkata 2010 (vs South Africa) and Mohali 2010 (vs Australia) all came through Indian spinners contributing significantly, but the tracks had something for the batsmen & fast bowlers.
Ravichandran Ashwin is currently placed at 5 in the ICC test bowlers’ rankings and in most likeliness he will go up on that list after this series. Even he would admit that on current form he doesn’t need assistance from the surface to bag big wickets. Ishant Sharma’s probing spells in Sri Lanka to propel India’s series win has been followed up by a series in which he has virtually nothing to do! Vijay and Rahane have been in sublime touch through India’s away tours over the last 2-3 years, and suddenly find themselves unable to get going on surfaces on which they have grown up and observed their peers amass runs in familiar conditions. Virat Kohli was, and probably still is, among the top 4-5 batsman in world cricket across formats and he as a batsman would have loved to stamp his authority on a top bowling attack in his backyard. Undoubtedly, the pitch at Nagpur has taken some sheen of India’s win and the reasons are equally valid. Given the manner in which senior members of the team management are strongly advocating for pitches which offer turn and bounce from the 1st day itself is appearing to be a policy thought rather than an aberration, something which can be done without for consistent success on home soil!