MS Dhoni got what he wanted — a pitch that turns from the first ball. The trouble is that England has got the maximum benefit from this, at least so far.
The initial moisture and life in the wicket made Monty Panesar’s deliveries grip, bounce and turn sharply. It was only after the sun had baked it for a few hours that the pitch settled down, and India made a partial recovery thanks to Cheteshwar Pujara’s two partnerships, with MS Dhoni and Ravichandran Ashwin.
On the second morning, the sweating under the covers overnight put just enough life back into the pitch to help England wrap up the Indian innings, with the hardness of the second new ball also helping the spinners.
By the time England came on to bat, the pitch had slowed down so much that the Indian spinners did not have the bite that Panesar and Graeme Swann got in the morning. This is roughly the same pattern we saw in the Ahmedabad Test. There India got away because England did not play Panesar; otherwise on that first morning when Swann got all four wickets to fall, India might have been in some strife. India were also lucky that the Ahmedabad pitch still had enough purchase on it on the second day and third morning for the Indian spinners to bowl England out cheaply.
By afternoon on the third day, however, the pitch was totally dead and India had to struggle really hard to get England out a second time. So, how is it an advantage then to win the toss and bat first on such pitches which just slow down as the game progresses and don’t crack up?
In the old days, the pitches were more brittle and used to crack up as the match progressed.
That’s why batting first was a huge advantage. But now the soil composition is such that the pitches can hold together for five days or more. On these tracks, the spinners are usually better off bowling on the first two or three days, especially if there is hardly any grass on the pitch but enough moisture and roughness in it. And you find this on all the old happy hunting grounds for spinners in Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata.
There are exceptions, of course. The last time India played a Test in Mumbai, perhaps with Sachin Tendulkar’s approaching milestone of the 100th ton in mind, the curator had rolled out an uncharacteristically flat batting wicket. For four days it was a batting paradise for both the Indians and the visiting West Indians. Then on the fifth day, suddenly the pitch crumbled and there were batting collapses on both sides, with the match ending in a tie.
Predictions in cricket — especially those based on how the pitch will behave — are perhaps foolhardy. But it’s fun to look at the match through the rear view mirror as it were, that is, backwards from the fifth day. It seems very unlikely that this pitch will crack up on the fifth day like it did in the last Test played here. That’s because there was enough moisture left in the wicket at the outset this time, and the pitch only flattened out half way through the second day — it wasn’t dry and lifeless to begin with.
India’s best chance to make the English first innings implode like it did in Ahmedabad will be in the morning session on Sunday before the sun dries out the wicket. The trouble is that the ball is 65 overs old and will be too soft to bounce and hasten off the pitch during the first hour’s play. Everything is in England’s favour to pile up a big score.
And by some quirk of soil chemistry, if the pitch does crack on Day 4 or 5, it will be India on the receiving end of spin. Maybe next time, when Dhoni asks for a pitch that turns from the very outset, he should also do the counter-intuitive thing by choosing to bowl first on winning the toss. Getting home advantage is fine, but we also need to know what to do with it.