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India vs England 3rd Test: Do not just blame Ahmedabad pitch, consider other factors as well

Source: Twitter (ICC)

“I honestly think the ball had a quite big factor on this wicket. The coating on it, the hardness of the seam, compared to the red SG ball. It gathered pace whenever it hit the shiny side and didn’t hit the seam,” said Joe Root.

The third Test match between India and England, at Ahmedabad, got over in just over five sessions. The pitch had offered assistance to the spinners right from Day 1, and controversy around it was understandable, perhaps even inevitable. After all, this was the shortest Test match since World War II. 

It is unfair to compare the earlier brief encounters to this one. Wickets are covered, matches are played under lights, and the pink ball – that had not been invented before this century – has come into prominence. And above everything, the ball played a key role.

“I honestly think the ball had a quite big factor on this wicket. The coating on it, the hardness of the seam, compared to the red SG ball. It gathered pace whenever it hit the shiny side and didn’t hit the seam,” Joe Root said in the post-match press conference. 

What Root tried to convey is that the pink ball had an extra coating of lacquer compared to the red SG ball. As a result, it skidded off the surface whenever it hit the shiny side. While some balls turned and beat the batsmen, others went straight after pitching. This created doubts in the mind of the batsmen and the indecisiveness led to their downfall.

Moreover, the black seam of the pink SG ball is supposedly harder to pick for batsmen. This makes it difficult for them to read the direction in which the seam is pointed, which in turn makes it tough for them to distinguish between conventional spin and the arm ball.

Of the 30 wickets to fall in this match, 28 were claimed by spinners. If we look at these numbers, it might give us an impression that the pitch was a ranging turner. However, if we dive deeper, we shall see that 21 of those wickets fell to deliveries that kept almost straight after pitching. 

So, as explained by Root, it was the nature of the ball, not the pitch, that made things far more trickier for the batsmen.

The batsmen did not impress, either. Even Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane perished while trying to play the cut off deliveries that kept straight after pitching and were too close to the body. Rahane’s dismissal in particular was shocking as the ball wasn’t pitched short.

The dismissals of Zak Crawley and Jonny Bairstow, both off straight deliveries inside the first three balls of the third innings, defied reason. Their wickets pushed England on the back foot after a good bowling performance got them back into the match. 

Their dismissals, as Kohli admitted after the match, was more due to lack of application: “To be honest, I don’t think the quality of batting was up to standards. We were 100 for 3 and they bowled out for less than 150. It was just the odd ball turning and it was a good wicket to bat in the first innings… It was bizarre that 21 of the 30 wickets fell to straight balls. Test cricket is about trusting your defence. Lack of application ensured it was a quick finish.”

Rohit Sharma, who was the highest run-getter in the match with scores of 66 and 25 not out, was of the same opinion when he addressed the media in the post-match press conference: “If I can recollect, most of the batsmen got out to straighter deliveries. Not just them, we, as a batting unit, made a lot of mistakes. We didn’t bat well in the first innings. The pitch had nothing as such, no such demons as we call. It was a nice pitch to bat on, once you’re in, you can score runs as well.

“When you are playing on a pitch like that, you need to have an intent and look to score runs as well. You can’t just keep blocking. As you saw that the odd ball might just turn and the odd ball might just skid onto stumps, when you play for a turn. You just need to be slightly ahead at times and try to find ways to score runs. My intent was not just to survive but try and score runs as well, while respecting the good balls.”

While it is not surprising to see members of the winning team coming up with such comments, we should at least hear what the England skipper had to say as well: “It’s certainly been two challenging surfaces over the past two games. But as players, you’ve got to try and play what’s handed to you. Let’s not hide away from the fact that we have been outplayed again. We’ve still been outplayed, and we have to accept that.”

While a major faction of the England supporters and pundits have expressed dissatisfaction regarding the pitch, former England players like Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen have asked the English players to accept their mistakes and improve their skills instead.

 

It was important to cover the line of the ball on this track instead of playing for the turn. On rank turners, every now and then a ball may turn viciously and end up being unplayable. There is little a batsman can do about that. What one can do, however, is ensure he does not get out to the ones that do not turn. There is no room for premeditation on these surfaces; the only way is to play late and keep an eye on the non-turning balls. That is where several batsmen faltered.

Moreover, we should not forget that England misread the pitch before the match. They played just one spinner compared to India’s three. Though Root made up for their absence of the extra spinner with his five-wicket haul, it doesn’t alter the fact that they had not read the pitch well. The disciplined show by the Indian spinners only made the job tougher for the English batsmen.

Now that we have discussed all these other factors in play, our focus needs to shift towards the main question.

Can we really term the pitch as ‘Poor’?

To understand that, we need to take a look at what ICC’s guidelines state.

Source: ICC

As evident from the guidelines stated in the image above, the pitch can’t be stated ‘unfit’ as it didn’t appear dangerous for batsmen at any point of time. It didn’t ‘explode’ at all.

Now if we look at the rules which work in favour of terming a pitch as ‘poor’. For that, it has to display either ‘excessive unevenness of bounce’ or ‘excessive assistance to spin bowlers, especially early in the match’.

The Ahmedabad pitch didn’t display any sort of excessive unevenness of bounce at any point of time. So that factor is ruled out. 

Of course, it did offer assistance to spinners early in the match. Whether we can call that as ‘excessive assistance’ is open to interpretation. The guidelines also state ‘it is impossible to quantify the amount that a ball is “allowed’’ to turn as bowlers will turn the ball differing amounts.’

So it is evident from the aforementioned guidelines that there is no hard evidence to rate the pitch as ‘poor’. It remains open to interpretation. However, we cannot ignore the role of the pink ball and the lack of application from batsmen behind the premature end.

Prasenjit Dey is freelance cricket journalist based out of Kolkata, India. Cricket runs through his veins and writing has always been his passion. He is now a part of both worlds, trying to make a difference by writing on the nitty-gritty of the game.

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