Pitch Condition Problem-Charu Sharma – BW Businessworld

So, the Indian cricket team is not ‘all conquering’ after all! Virat Kohli was somewhat dismissive of the 0-3 ODI whitewash in New Zealand, as ‘not particularly relevant this year’, but the subsequent 0-2 whitewash in the two match Test Series has certainly caused embarrassment to the Indian cricket juggernaut.  

For starters, yes, India missed a couple of its top stars due to injury. One can argue that Rohit Sharma (who only recently, thank heavens, regained his Test Match pedestal) could have made a big difference at the top, as would have his regular opening partner, Shikhar Dhawan. But the Kiwis, too, had top players missing because of injury. Especially in the bowling department, where, for the bulk of the tour, Lockie Ferguson, Matt Henry and Trent Boult were out due to injury. And what a huge difference Boult made once he returned! Yes, the Indians can also lament the absence of  bowlers such as Bhuvi Kumar, and all-rounder Hardik Pandya, among the proven lot.
But it is easy to conclude that the injuries on both sides cancel each other out.  

The most obvious problem area for the Indians was batting. No really big score to write home about in four innings. The most fashionable argument these days is that white ball cricket has caused impatience and reduced ability to ‘leave’ till the bowlers tire. While Shaw and Agarwal are certainly aggressive, Pujara and Rahane are old school, patient and Kolhi is an acknowledged master of all forms.

Theoretically, that is a pretty good mix, but none of them achieved much more than the other. The real problem, of course, is the difference in pitch conditions. While all countries realise the need to provide ‘flat’ pitches for white ball cricket − led, somewhat understandably, by commerce and fan provision − test match pitches is where hosts can and do, play to their traditional strengths. New Zealand cricket is bred on fast, fresh, grassy greentops. The batsmen have to face tall, strong fast bowlers who move the ball in the air, off the pitch − due to the volume of grass, and extract extra bounce off  the hard surface beneath the grass. The first two problems are hard enough to deal with. But it is the bounce that creates the final frontier.  

Growing up, and facing thousands of deliveries over several years, the top cricketers of a nation develop a fairly distinct motor memory. After all, a 140 kmph delivery allows a batsman less than half a second to decide the plan of action. There are many factors involved in this decision making process, but the two primary ones are line and length. Standing upright, it is a shade easier to read the line along the pitch. The exact length where a ball will pitch, is a challenge. But the killer, is to judge the bounce off the pitch, which is right at the tail end of  the half second! Here is where the batsman’s motor memory kicks in big time. For effective stroke play, the eight-inch sweet spot of the bat needs to meet the ball. But if  there is just four to six inches of extra bounce, it becomes difficult for the mind to factor that in, ball after ball. Consequently, doubts set in and footwork and stroke play begins to get tentative.  

One may well argue, why does the home team not suffer from the same difficulty? Quite obviously, because their motor memory is based on a ‘home’ reading of bounce. The visiting bowlers get a similar level of bounce off the pitch, which the home batsmen are expecting anyway. This motor memory is not easy to change in a hurry. Thus the need to have two or three tour matches preceding a five Test Match Series. A time frame that is becoming increasingly difficult to provide in these times of crowded cricket calendars.  

For cricket fans, the good news is that Indian cricket will continue to do fabulously at home. And, as a tailpiece, a good time to remember just how monumental was India’s first ever Test Series victory in Australia last year!

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