Indore: No sooner had the third Test ended on Friday morning than the ground staff started to water the parching pitch at the Holkar Stadium here. Ahead of the third Test, the pitch had been left to roast under the beating sun to bring out the crusty bits that the spinners could exploit.
But the plan boomeranged as India were slain on the field they were expected to slay Australia to seal the series and qualify for the World Test Championship (WTC) final at The Oval in June. Australia, instead, walked into the final.
Australia’s stand-in captain Steve Smith then rubbed it in at the post-match press conference and, in a mind-game move, said that these pitches suit him and he enjoys them more because ‘every ball is an event’ and that it brings ‘opposition into the contest’.
His comments will probably put India in a dilemma on what pitch to dish out for the last Test in Ahmedabad because another turner will mean playing to Smith’s strength.
Also read: Australia win, through to WTC final
“India is a part of the world I love captaining [in]. It’s a game of chess. Every ball means something. It is good fun moving people and trying to make the batter think something different and just playing games with them. It’s probably my favourite place in the world to captain. Back home in Australia, you generally play with a third slip or putting a square leg up or back or pulling a 3rd slip to cover. There’s not much that goes on, you sort of stick to the same game plan and trust what you are trying to do there,” he said.
“In this part of the world, you have to be very proactive. Every ball is an event and that ball can dictate what happens to the ball after. [It is] Something that I really love. I thought I did it well this week and it was good fun. Such surfaces bring the opposition into the contest,” said Smith, who is standing in for Pat Cummins for the last two Test matches due to the pacer’s absence but made it clear that he won’t be a permanent captain despite the winning result.
The win is significant not just because it helped Australia reach the WTC final but also because this is only the third time India have lost a Test at home in the last 10 years. Two of those losses have been against an Australian side led by Smith. The first one came at Pune in 2017 on a surface that also supported a significant turn.
Being one of the best batsmen against spin, Smith understands the game on Indian pitches which are different from those in neighbouring Pakistan where Australia toured last year, and drew a lot of inspiration from the 1-0 series win there.
“The styles of play here and in Pakistan are very different. In Pakistan, it didn’t really spin much. You had to play the waiting game a lot in Pakistan. In India, you have to be ahead of the game, think on your feet, and make changes constantly to try and make things happen.”
Rohit Sharma, however, wasn’t that worried about the loss or how the spin-friendly pitch backfired and attributed the loss largely to poor batting by his side.
To a question by Patriot on batting on challenging pitches, he said, “When you are playing on challenging pitches, batters will be challenged. Batters have to find ways of scoring runs. And people have done that. England and South Africa guys have got runs, big runs [on these pitches]. We want to win – [whether it is in] two days or five days, it doesn’t matter. We don’t prepare a pitch on which results are not coming. We play to win every game. It can haunt us as well but so be it. We want to be brave enough in not just talking, we want to be brave in the field as well, which starts with playing on challenging wickets.”
Aside from his brave front, which comes from the fact that he is among the most adept batsmen against spin in the world, it will be interesting to see what kind of pitch India dish out in the final Test at Ahmedabad.
The final Test won’t just be a matter of qualifying for the WTC final. A loss on a result-oriented pitch will mean that India will not be winning a series at home which has not happened in the last 10 years. They’ve won 15 series on the trot since the 2-1 loss to Alastair Cook’s England in 2012-13, including two one-off Test series against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. They’ve not even drawn a series in the period, which they will if they lose the final Test.
This week only, skipper Sharma had talked of giving a seamer-friendly surface for the last Test in Ahmedabad in case they win the third Test in Indore. This move was majorly to prepare the team for the WTC final which will be held in the cooler and wetter climate of England at The Oval in June.
On Friday, he backed off a bit from that original plan following this result.
“Too early now to talk about it. We will have a chat about what went wrong in the game, what we can do well there (in Ahmedabad), and not worry about the pitch.”
But he did admit that pitches that offer turn and spin remain a priority.
“These are the kind of pitches we want to play on. This is our strength. So when you are playing at home, you always play to your strength and [not] worry about what people are talking about. Our strength is spin bowling and batting depth. Other teams use home advantage. What is wrong in that, especially, when we are getting the results? If we were not getting the results, I would think otherwise.”
Local officials at the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association (MPCA) have said, on condition of anonymity, that a pitch different from what was being prepared for this Test, was used upon team management’s insistence.
If it is true then the Indian team management miscalculated it as the India batting coach Vikram Rathore had said, after the first day’s play, that they didn’t expect the pitch to assist so much turn.
In short, the plan backfired, and in Ahmedabad, the India team will have to tread cautiously.