The last Test played between India and England at the new Narendra Modi Stadium at Ahmedabad figures at serial number 2.412 in the chronological order of list of matches in the long history of the game. India winning the Test convincingly by a margin of 10 wickets should have been reason to cheer for the supporters of the home side. However, celebrations were rather muted as the sheen of victory was clouded by criticism that the pitch was of very low quality and deliberately underprepared to favour the home side. The fact that the game did not go even into the third day indicates that something was amiss as it is extremely rare for Test matches to get over within six sessions of play.
A peep into the statistics of Test match cricket reveals that out of these 2,412 matches, only 22 (less than 1%) finished in less than two days. A deeper analysis will show that seven of such results happened from the year 2000 onwards, while nine took place in the 19th century and the remaining during the first five decades of the 20h. In other words, during the first 49 Tests (1877 to 1896), there were nine instances when the game got over in less then two days. During the next 50 years (1896 to 1946), 226 matches were played wherein six finished without going into the third day. However, the next time this happened was in 2000 and since then there have been seven occasions, including the recent game at Ahmedabad.
These statistical inputs would only help to state that short duration matches were not considered abnormal during the early days of Test cricket, when only England, Australia and South Africa played the game. Those were the days of timeless Tests, when games used to be played till a result was reached and hence duration of the match was of little significance. However, as the game reached new countries like India, the West Indies and New Zealand during the 20th century and duration of the match was fixed at five days, such instances started becoming less frequent. Incidentally, there were no occasions during the second half of 20th century when a Test got over in two days. This was on account of conditions the world over becoming more favourable to batsmen, adoption of the practice of covering the wickets to protect them from rain and the pitches getting even paced and even placid.
However, Test cricket started getting duller and less result oriented during the 1970s and 80s. The preparation of wickets that gave little assistance to the bowlers, especially in the Indian sub continent, led to more matches ending up without a result being attained even after five days of play. This invited widespread criticism and led to diminishing spectator interest towards Test cricket. The increasing popularity of limited overs matches, which came of age during this phase, made it appear that the longer duration version of the game was on its last legs and would soon become a relic. This development opened the eyes of the authorities and from 1990s onwards there has been a concerted effort to ensure that Test matches invariably produce results, with drawn encounters becoming the exception, rather than the norm as they used to be.
One unintended side effect of this effort to produce results in all matches has been the resurgence of games getting over sooner than expected. As a match can end in a result only if all 40 wickets fall or one side lose lesser wickets after dismissing their opponents twice for a lower score, it is highly imperative that conditions should help bowlers or at the very least not place them at any disadvantage vis a vis the willow-wielders. The changes that have come over in the technique and temperament of batsmen of the present generation, who are bred on a diet of listed overs cricket, makes it more difficult for them to adjust to pitches that give assistance to bowlers. These factors have combined to tip the sales in favour of the bowlers in Test cricket from the last decade of the previous century.
When one goes through the list of seven matches that got over under two days from 2000 onwards, it will be seen that three of them featured Zimbabwe, while Afghanistan was at the receiving end in one. Zimbabwe cricket has not been in the best of health due to troubles within the country, while Afghanistan are still considered as “minnows” in international cricket. Hence it can be concluded that it was the relative weakness of one of the sides that led to early completion of these four games. On a similar note, one Test was played at Sharjah (Australia vs Pakistan in 2005), which was not one of the regular venues for this form of cricket. That leaves two matches - England vs West Indies at Leeds in 2000 and the recent game between India and England at Ahmedabad, as the only ones between evenly matches sides, played on established centres for Test cricket.
In the Test at Leeds in 2000, West Indies (172 and 61) lost to England (272) by an innings and 39 runs on a pitch that helped the pace bowlers. Headingly ground at Leeds is famous not only for the greentop pitches that the groundsmen there prepare but also for the cold and cloudy conditions, which provide assistance to seam and swing bowlers. This was undoubtedly a low-scoring match but the reason why the game finished so early was the dramatic collapse of the West Indies in the second innings when they got bowled out in a mere 26.2 overs. There were three half-centuries in this Test - by Michael Vaughan and Graeme Hick of England and Ramnaresh Sarwan of the West Indies. Though dismissed for a score in double digits, the West Indies did not blame the pitch as it was a combination of bad batting and prevailing conditions that caused their rout.
But in the recently concluded Ahmedabad Test where England (112 and 81) lost to India (145 and 49/0), neither of the sides managed to cross 150 runs even once and there were only two half-centuries (by Rohit Sharma and Zak Crawley). That the ball was turning square from the first hour of the opening day could be seen from the fact that Johny Bairstow was dismissed by Axar Patel, the Indian left-arm spinner, in the seventh over of the match. Joe Root, who bowls off spin so occasionally as to pick up 32 wickets in 101 Tests prior to this game, proved almost unplayable for the Indian batsmen as can be evidenced from his figures of five wickets for a mere eight runs! Not surprisingly, 28 out of the 30 wickets that fell during this game went to the spin bowlers.
One can argue that England made a big mistake by going into this Test with four fast bowlers and one spinner, which could have happened on account of reading the pitch incorrectly. But that will not take away the fact that the wicket was underprepared with the intention of giving undue assistance to the Indian spinners. It is not that India do not have top quality groundsmen who can prepare good, sporting tracks. India had won a hard-fought series bearding Australia in their den only last month. All this together provokes the following questions:
Was the wicket prepared in this manner at the express directions of the Indian team management as a reaction to the shock loss suffered by the side in the first Test at Chennai?
Was it the decision of the ground authorities at Ahmedabad to ensure an Indian victory in the renovated stadium?
Was it lack of confidence in the ability of Indian players that prompted whoever it was who decided to prepare this wicket?
Would it not have been far better to prepare a sporting wicket of the type prepared by groundsmen in Australia which encourages an even battle between the bat and the ball?
Irrespective of the answers to these questions, one should realise cricket was the ultimate loser.
Indian cricket fans love the game and wish to see their side win every time. However, one should not be at the expense of the other. Moreover, the present day Indian side is capable of defeating the best in the world in any given conditions, the occasional defeat notwithstanding. It is high time the decision makers of the game in the country realised these simple facts. Let us script a fresh beginning by accepting that the wicket prepared at Ahmedabad was a disaster and make amends by preparing a pitch for the last Test that will bring the best out of both sides and produce top quality cricket. Indian cricket and followers of the sport deserve nothing less from the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)