By Tushar Bhaduri
In the run-up to the Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, did the hosts suffer from a lack of confidence in their bowling attack’s ability to take 20 wickets in a match? Jasprit Bumrah’s unavailability didn’t help, but Indian bowlers – seamers and spinners alike – have shown in recent years that they are proficient in hunting as a pack, whatever the conditions.
Better bowlers are the ones better equipped to get wickets on better pitches, which don’t have conditions loaded in their favour. Ravichandran Ashwin and Mohammed Shami have taken wickets all around the world, and the off-spinner is rightly feted as one of the best practitioners of his art in the history of the game. Shami has played a key role in Indian Test victories not only at home but also in England, Australia, and South Africa.
Bowlers with less nous, class, or experience may not replicate their results. Hence, it was somewhat counter-intuitive to dish out rank turners for the first three Tests of the series, on which even the likes of Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann became difficult to negotiate. Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, and Axar Patel are tough to handle as it is on typical Indian wickets, which start off as batter-friendly and start aiding spinners as the match progresses. But when the ball starts exploding off the pitch with sharp turn and variable bounce from the beginning of a Test match, it brings the two attacks closer. One just has to be accurate and consistent on the right spot on the pitch to reap rewards. India may have won the first two Tests, but there were passages in both when the visitors were at least in with an even chance. When the tourists eliminated most of their mistakes, they came out on top in the third Test.
If the nature of pitches were dictated by the strength of a full-strength Aussie pace attack, hindsight proved it to be the wrong strategy. Josh Hazlewood has returned home without playing any part in the series due to injury, regular skipper Pat Cummins has gone to be with his ailing mother after playing the first two Tests, while Mitchell Starc only played the last two after recovering from a busted finger.
Hence, even without Bumrah, the Indian pace attack of Shami, Mohammed Siraj, and Umesh Yadav would have been a more potent combination than whatever the visitors could put on the table.
But maybe, it was the faith in the tried and trusted formula that prompted the decision-makers in the Indian camp to go for pitches that helped end Test matches in two and a half days. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? India has been well nigh unbeatable at home over the last decade on pitches tailor-made for spinners. Coming into the series, they had lost only two Tests at home in the last 10 years. The need to capitalise on home series in pursuit of a World Test championship final spot also makes them wary of taking any risks with the playing surface. When this tactic had provided the results they were after, there was no reason felt to put the team out of their comfort zone.
Defeat prompts rethink
But as the Indore defeat, and even the matches before it, showed, the current crop of India batsmen are not as adept at playing spin on turners as their predecessors. The averages of almost all of the Indian top-order batters have plummeted in recent times, especially at home. The challenging surfaces were sought to be justified by the bigger team objective of victory. The whole approach seemed to be: maybe, we will get out for a low score, but our spinners will bundle them out for less. It’s a race to the bottom, in a way.
But this strategy is fraught with risk, and an Indore-like debacle is enough to force a rethink. Nathan Lyon is a class performer but Murphy and Kuhnemann are rookies who wouldn’t have believed their luck with the pitches they were presented with. As a result, they have had even seasoned pros like Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in strife at various points in the series.
With a WTC final spot not yet secured going into the final game of the series, Ahmedabad laid out a more ‘traditional’ Indian pitch, in the hope that the inexperienced Aussie spinners will have much less to work with, while the class of their Indian counterparts will come to the fore.
This strategy comes with the risk of allowing top Australian batters like Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, Usman Khawaja, and Travis Head to make match-defining scores. But there is no perfect strategy or silver bullet to win Test matches.
In the end, one has to accept that it’s the players, and not the pitches, that decide the outcome of games of cricket. The surface is the same for both teams, and even if it’s relatively unfamiliar to one side, it doesn’t mean that they can’t play, and win, on it. This is what makes winning away from home, in alien climes, the biggest challenge in Test cricket. It differentiates the great teams from the merely good ones.