Monday, November 28, 2011

Final day at Wankhede - queering the pitch for Conspiracy Theorists

This post also appears in the author's CricketCountry columns

The final few overs at the Wankhede resonated with millions of hearts throbbing in unison, while knuckles were cracked to their limits and nails chewed down to the quick.

The phenomenal day, on which all four results seemed equally likely till the penultimate ball, provided not only one of the most dramatic ends to Test matches, but also underlined the glorious uncertainties of the great game. While Ravichandran Ashwin failed to turn quickly enough and charge down the wicket to complete the second run, nothing can be taken away from the young man who produced one of the best ever all-round performances for the country.

However, the ones who have indeed been caught on the wrong foot are the hundreds of chaotic voices, also known as critics, who till the fourth evening had shouted in various degrees of righteous indignation about supposed doctoring of the pitch. It won’t make happy reading for the tribe, but it has to be accepted that a Test match wicket that ended up producing such a great game has been exonerated of the charges, vindicated by the outcome.

Test cricket is a treasure trove of surprise delights because of the vagaries of fortune, the twists and turns of tale that can bubble up during its five day flow. Just as demonstrated by the recent series in the other hemisphere, predicting outcomes based on the first half, three quarters, or even 90% of a Test match can be hazardous, prone to as many errors as wagers on a throw of dice. There are too many parameters in the longer version of the game to always make a reasonably accurate prediction – the surface of the turf, the moisture in the air, the direction of the wind all have their say in the final result, as in no other sport. Voicing opinions while there are hours and overs left to be played can be risky business, making one perilously prone to be put down as the false prophet.

Understandably we are used to tracks that turn square from the first day, where a ball pitched up often gets lost in the puff of dust is discharged from the strip even before the players have had their first midday meal of the game. This is especially true if we are playing against a side known to be susceptible against the turning ball. However, by definition, a sporting track is not a bowler-friendly minefield from the first hour. And talented batsmen like Darren Bravo being difficult to dislodge does not automatically imply that the pitch has been made for a purpose other than a simple game of cricket.

In fact, pitches that start out having lots of runs in them and then break up towards the latter part of the match are nothing new in the history of Indian cricket. During the Mohammad Azharuddin-Ajit Wadekar era, India won Test after Test by piling on a huge score on an apparent featherbed which turned square from the third afternoon, allowing Anil Kumble, Venkatpathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan to torture and torment the opposition batsmen with looped up poison tipped slow balls while a battery of close-in fielders crouched in wait. Perhaps, if India had won the toss in this Test match, this wicket would have been clubbed in that old category, the line of criticism changing to the safer track of pampering our spinners and being tigers at home. However, the chancy coin proved faithless to the Indian cause, and the critics ended up shooting themselves in the foot.

Test cricket makes some significant demands on the cricketers. Along with talent, flair, temperament, one of the much-needed ingredients for success is patience. It is that attribute which allows a batsman to tire down the bowlers by shouldering arms ball after ball during long innings, that quality which allows a bowler to stick to a plan over after over till it bears fruit in the form of a snick, that virtue which allows the fielder to react with the speed of lightening and grab the only chance that may come his way in more than a day and a half.

Strangely, this same demand – in a different degree – is made by the game on its spectators. To enjoy the finer points of the game, and capture the essence of entertainment, one needs to stick to the action in the middle with serene persistence, allowing it to mature and pitch forth the delicious surprises and secrets to the persevering. Sadly, in these days of the instantaneous, jumping to conclusions with fallacious judgements in the face of uncertainty is too rampant.

It is remarkably easy and mouth-wateringly attractive to look for correlations between the placid wicket and Sachin Tendulkar’s landmark, surmising with smug self-satisfaction that the latter influenced the former. It is easy to get brownie points through Facebook likes, accolades in discussion forums or prominence in the media circus by voicing supposed patriotic concern about the robbery of a national 3-0 victory for the fruition of personal landmarks. So sure were these critics of themselves that they did not even qualify their charges with possible face-saving buffers like ‘probably’, ‘possibly’ and ‘perhaps’.

However, cricket is a strange game – and there is always the danger that such unverified words may have to be swallowed with the bitterness of truth. Indeed, when 17 wickets fell on the last day, and run-making seemed increasingly back-breaking, all those who had been crowing about the placidity of the track were themselves caught on sticky wicket, their own pitch queered by even a Marlon Samuels getting the ball to turn, bounce, stop and talk.

Some pointed their desperate fingers at the West Indian batting line-up, prone to collapses on any day and surface. But, given that the likes of Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar and VVS Laxman found run-making extremely difficult, perishing to balls that turned, bounced, stopped or came on quickly, the claim can be dismissed with a carelessly concealed chuckle.

The wicket, it turned out, was one of the most sporting, which gave batsmen the upper hand for the first few days, and then, with the end in sight, switched allegiance to the bowlers. The match thus produced will go down as one of the most fascinating encounters of all times.

Performances in the face of crisis will be recalled with the greatest admiration and awe. Virat Kohli’s crucial knock will be remembered for genuine maturity and a fascinating forecast of future. Darren Sammy’s tactic of slowing the game down by clutching his hamstring and ultimately frustrating the young batsman into playing a cut shot down the throat of gully will remain one of the most memorable mind games witnessed on the ground in recent times.

As Test match aficionados, we can now regale in the memories of the fantastic contest that was on display – a testimony to the continuing robust health of the noblest format of the noble game.

And as a concluding note, we can say that Sudhir Naik, the curator, ended up doing a brilliant job with the strip. Formulae for such wickets need to be urgently added to the business plans – if any such plans exist, that is – for luring spectators back to the stands.

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