As England stumbled to a crushing defeat, their biggest in terms of runs in Asia, the talk about this pitch in Chennai remained the focus for many. It turned from the very first ball and according to CricViz, nearly 79% of overs being bowled by spinners was the most in a Test in India since 2012 – another Test against England on a pitch in Mumbai that turned and turned big.
Almost as soon as Ashwin Ravichandran ragged one past the outside edge in England’s first innings on his way to match figures of 8/96 there was talk about this pitch being “substandard”. As these comments came after Rohit Sharma made 161 brilliant runs in India’s first innings, and before Ashwin backed up his brilliant bowling with 106 in India’s second dig, they made little sense.
This pitch was certainly an anomaly, any time spinners bowl four-fifths of the balls bowled in a game it is clearly unusual. The question isn’t one of rarity, it is whether this is an issue, and more importantly, why do some pundits and fans feel that a wicket that favours spin bowlers is wrong but one where the seamers hold sway is just fine. Why do so many cricket lovers seem to think spin bowling should only be a major threat from the fourth day onwards?
The pitch in Chennai was not dangerous. While the bowl spun and bounced it did not spit alarmingly at the batsmen and there were very few balls that kept low. Rohit, Ashwin and Virat Kohli showed that scoring runs on that surface was possible and England’s Ben Foakes looked to have found a way in his team’s first innings. Yet thinly-veiled allegations of foul play flowed forth.
In August 2018, India were put into to bat at Lord’s in conditions that massively favoured the home team. India were all out for 107 and England wrapped up an innings victory in a rain-affected game that had less than two days’ worth of play across the whole match. This wasn’t an ideal pitch either, but for some reason, the aesthetics of the ball swinging and seaming seems to be more palatable than puffs of dust and fizzing spin.
While there is no doubt that this Chennai pitch was at the extreme end of what you would expect, there are perhaps some mitigating factors involved. With another Test taking place immediately before this game on the same ground the preparation time needed was cut massively. I spoke to an experienced curator who has prepared international standard pitches and when asked about preparing a Test surface under these circumstances, he said it would be extremely difficult.
Ideally, you have 10 days to prepare a wicket for a Test match. To get the good covering of grass needed to hold it together you need to be flooding the pitch to saturation and rolling it at the exact right time to bind the soil. With a match happening on the same square your time to prepare the pitch is restricted to lunch, tea and after play.
With the turnaround time between these two Tests, of those 10 vital days needed to prepare the surface the groundstaff lost days two to seven. All of this is extremely difficult to get right without a Test being played on the same square. Here we had the Chennai sun baking the pitch for the second match for five days before the game got underway.
This isn’t to offer any excuses for the curator on a pitch which, as already mentioned, wasn’t ideal, but it does offer some insight into just another challenge faced by cricket during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Test cricket is about the best team winning after outperforming their opponent. India did just that in this Test. Between them, Rohit and Ashwin combined, scored more runs than the whole of the England team did in both of their innings. Ashwin showed once again that in Asian conditions there is no one better with the ball while also going a long way to rediscovering the batting form that had deserted him over the last few years.
India were the better team and they won. The surface on which they played is almost irrelevant as long as that remains the case. England did brilliantly in the first Test to pull off one of their best-ever wins, and they remain a side that is both impressive and improving. But once this match was played at the more extreme end of the conditions spectrum, India came into their own. This is why winning overseas is so hard, and why England did something very similar to India at Lord’s in 2018 when the conditions heavily favoured them.
If every pitch was like this one in Chennai we could start raising our eyebrows. If when the teams get to Ahmedabad we see a pitch with this profile, we can start asking about preparing pitches that favour the home team too heavily. But even then, it wouldn’t be the first time and it won’t be the last that a team does this.
The beauty of cricket, one of the things that elevates it above other sports, is that every game is different because every pitch is different. If cricket had a uniform surface as described by those critical of the Chennai surface, the game would be worse off for it. As they might say in France if they played this great game – vive le difference.