TV tigers growl in pitch battle

Times Media


TELEVISION, sometimes a questionable influence on sport, could yet come to the rescue of SA’s pitch imperfect test series in India.

If all three matches played had gone the distance, fans would have seen 15 days of cricket. Instead, they have had to make do with seven days – less than half the scheduled number.

Nothing could be done about rain robbing the match in Bangalore of four days’ play. But the loss of three days each in Mohali and Nagpur was self-inflicted by the preparation of pitches heavily skewed in favour of spin bowling.

Consequently, the contest between bat and ball has been severely compromised: after nine completed innings, no centuries and just four 50s have been scored while 89 wickets have fallen at an average of 18.43.

Spinners have taken 75 of those wickets and the seamers’ 14. Indian off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin alone has 10 more scalps than all nine seamers combined.

And it seems India want another partisan pitch for the fourth test at the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi starting on Thursday.

“Nothing wrong with (the Nagpur pitch),” India team director Ravi Shastri said yesterday. “I would hope the one in Delhi is absolutely the same – I have no qualms about it. To hell with the five days.”

India have already won the series, but it could be in their best interests to prepare a raging turner in Delhi.

Anything else would leave them open to charges of dishonesty for insisting that the surfaces in Mohali and Nagpur were nothing more than reflections of India’s natural conditions.

However, Star Sports would seem to hold a sharply opposite view. They have lost some 75 hours of broadcast time in the series – which has reportedly cost them the equivalent of R172.4-million in advertising revenue.

“This is bad for cricket and bad for us,” an unnamed network official told the Hindustan Times.

“Only quality, competitive cricket is our saviour, which is not the case in this series.”

What had been served up so far was “not in the interests of the game”.

These are strange days indeed, what with television suits – who have for years championed the one-day and Twenty20 game over the longer format – going in to bat for test cricket.

Whether Star will be able to put enough pressure on cricket officials to force a return to less extreme playing conditions in Delhi remains to be seen.

But the network have paid almost R8.3-billion for the rights to broadcast India’s matches from 2012 to 2018, and if they aren’t getting enough bang for their buck they are entitled to say so.

The SA squad removed themselves from all that at the weekend when they decamped to the Pench Tiger Reserve near Nagpur on a safari arranged by former SA captain Shaun Pollock, who is in India commentating on the series.

Tigers were indeed spotted, as evidenced by the social media postings of Dale Steyn and Kyle Abbott.

“Dead eye Dale spotted Mr Tiger hiding in the bush,” Steyn captioned one of his photographs. “He kindly decided to take a stroll in front of us for 15 minutes, such a beautiful beast!”

SA are due to arrive in Delhi on Monday. They will hope to encounter a pitch of a different stripe on Thursday.


Leading Edge: White with pink dots, and unfair

Sunday Times


WHAT’S white with pink spots and stands at the side of Wardha Road, the artery clogged with mediocrity that links downtown Nagpur to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar International Airport and, beyond that, Jamtha stadium?

Here’s clue that won’t help: as it stood there in its pinky whiteness it chewed pensively with bearded jaws and looked at the world through eyes more dead than alive.

It was a goat. White with pink spots painted all over its body. Yes, really.

Quite why a garishly painted goat was standing at the side of Wardha Road was a question best not asked, lest someone tried to answer it. But some questions ask themselves.

“I’ve tried for three days now not to write about the pitch,” an Indian journalist said as the media bus trundled along Wardha Road back from Jamtha towards Nagpur on Friday evening. “And for three days I have failed.”

We were on our way back to town after reporting on day three of the third test between India and SA. There would be no fourth day.

It wasn’t difficult to empathise with my colleague. Trying not to cover the third test without writing about the pitch would have been like trying to review Shakespeare’s play about three witches and the murder of a Scottish king without referring to Macbeth.

Not only was this pitch a wretched thing on which to play a game of cricket, it would seem to have been designed to be exactly that.

Neither the groundsman nor India’s suits nor indeed their players have shown the slightest sign of embarrassment at having won the series on this impostor of a pitch.

Michael Vaughan seems to think they should be ashamed, calling the surface “nothing short of diabolical for test cricket” as 20 wickets fell on the second day.

In response, Virat Kohli sulked about “people sitting somewhere else and speaking about the pitch in India” and stooped to whataboutery.

“It is always a matter of us not having the technique or us not having the mental strength to cope with conditions away from home,” Kohli said. “But when these sorts of things happen, everybody starts talking about how it is an undue home advantage.”

That’s because pitches elsewhere are not as flagrantly skewed to favour the home side as those in Mohali and, particularly, Nagpur were. You’ve heard of match-fixing? Welcome to pitch-fixing.

Kohli’s other defence, that these are simply “the conditions you get in India” is disingenuous. Plenty of good pitches have been made here, surfaces on which India have been able to use their strengths without depending on unfairness to win.

The Jamtha pitch was not one of them. Instead, it was an insult to all who paid good money to watch an honest cricket match, even if they don’t want to admit that while they celebrate a tainted victory.

They would have spent their money better buying tickets to see a white goat with pink spots on Wardha Road.


SA must rise above retribution when India next tour

Sunday Times


CAN you hear that? It’s the sound of grass growing on SA’s pitches in anticipation of India’s next tour there.

At the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi, where India and SA will play the now redundant fourth test, there is nothing to be heard.

Groundstaff are awaiting instructions on what sort of surface they should prepare. And so, neither a drop of water nor a roller have apparently been applied. The match starts on Thursday …

The man who is due to tell the Kotla groundstaff what to do is the chairperson of the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s pitch and grounds committee, Daljit Singh, who is also the groundsman in Mohali – where SA lost inside three days on a surface bespoke for spinners to run rampant.

Three days was also all the groundsman wrote at Jamtha, where an even more challenging pitch than Mohali’s condemned batsmen to another torrid time and helped India clinch the series on Friday.

With that went SA’s record of not having lost an away series since they August 2006. To relinquish that status in a fair fight would have been one thing. This was distinctly another.

“I haven’t played in conditions like these before in my life, so I suppose that’s a bit of a consolation,” Hashim Amla said.

“It was really challenging, and you never know, if we had had this before, what would have happened.

“But it is very disappointing to lose a series away from home after being part of it all for nine years.”

Singh is due to arrive in Delhi sometime this weekend. Given that 10 days are usually set aside for the preparation of a pitch meant to last five days, you would be forgiven for wondering why he has bothered to make the trip. But only if you forget that these pitches are meant to last not half as long as they should.

The most recent test at the Kotla, in 2013, was also over in three days with off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and left-arm spinners Pragyan Ojha and Ravindra Jadeja claiming 17 of Australia’s 20 wickets.

What to do about such an assault on the balance of test cricket? In county cricket next year, the toss will be dispensed with. Instead, the visiting captain will have the choice of fielding first.

It’s an idea that could have been borrowed from baseball, where the home team always bats last. But cricket won’t want to copy another baseball convention – if a pitched ball hits an opposing batter, the fielding side can be sure the favour will be returned when they next bat.

Let’s not go there. When next India tour SA, the pitches should be proper.


Steyn hands celebrity mantle to Ashwin

Sunday Times


THE eyes have it. They are diamonds in the dark, perfectly hard, shining and knowing that they are part of specialness – that they are not like others’ eyes, which follow them like heat-seeking missiles.

Dale Steyn has had these eyes for seven years. Now, Ravichandran Ashwin has them, too. They are the eyes of players who have outgrown the game itself and become bigger than the sum of their own talent and skill.

India has had a key role to play in the steroidal growth of cricket’s cult of celebrity. It is here, in the country where the game is the fat chewed in millions of conversations daily, more than anything except, perhaps, Bollywood, where it is what kids of all ages play wherever and whenever they get the chance, that cricketers shed their mortal selves.

This transformation used to be the preserve of Indian players, although exceptions were made when mayhem magnets like Jonty Rhodes came to town.

In 2008, the Indian Premier League came to those towns. Suddenly the country’s most prominent business people and actors, some of them bigger celebrities than any cricketer, owned the game’s richest, most media saturated arena.

Coincidentally, 2008 was also when Steyn was officially recognised as the cricket’s finest bowler, a status he has held for almost all of the ensuing seven years.

That has been a marriage made in marketing heaven. If you can’t sell Steyn to the cricket world, you probably also can’t sell beer to students. And the cricket world is drunk on Steyn, as evidenced by his 1.87-million Twitter followers.

Steyn has an uneasy relationship with all this. “Terrible guitar player,” is how he announces himself on Twitter, and for all the fuss made over his every move he has retained a lot of the smalltown-ness that comes standard with kids from Phalaborwa.

“Ah, I don’t know …” is often his most revealing line at press conferences. It is delivered with a deliberate fade of those eyes, which are full of what he knows he wants to say but also knows he had better not say. Sometimes, he falls victim to a frigid petulance.

But he was a breath of the freshest air in smokey Mohali, where he charmed a crowd of jaded journalists by telling them how bowling to a batsman on India’s low-bouncing pitches leaves him “smiling because I can get him out lbw all day”.

Ashwin, too, is comfortable quipping his way through life. “‘Oh my god, he is arrogant, over-confident, he thinks he is better than me’,” was his caricature of his critics in a recent interview.

“All these kind of things come in because we are Indians. We have a very small-shaped view of life.”

But a cricketer and his cricket career are not always on the same scorecard.

Morne Morkel, for instance, stands 1.96 metres tall with shoulders to match. If he felt like it, he could kill you with one fell swoop of his bowling arm. Happily, you know he doesn’t feel like it.

You wouldn’t be so sure about Steyn – it’s in those eyes. They glare at batsmen, and occasionally at reporters, like the rest of us glare at someone who cuts us off in traffic.

Ashwin can’t hurt you physically with his whirling dervish deliveries. But would you trust him not to try? With those eyes, not a chance.

Right now, Ashwin is on the cusp of Steyn’s level of celebrity. Steyn’s groin strain has prevented them from sharing the stage of this series, and more’s the pity. But diamonds are forever.

The most successful non-Asian batsmen in Asia are …

Sunday Times


IF Alistair Cook, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Allan Border were dots, how would they be connected? All of them were and, in Cook’s case, are fine batsmen, and all have captained test teams.

But beyond that?

Three are left-handers, two of them – Chanderpaul and Border – of the stoic rather than the spectacular variety; a rarity among southpaws. The other cackhander, Cook, looks like a matinee idol and bats like a leading man.

The right-handers, too, are peas from different pods. Kallis was a peon to orthodoxy while Ponting was never more Ponting than when he was pulling off the front foot.

But those five players are the non-Asians who have scored the most runs in tests in Asian conditions, including the United Arab Emirates.

That they are so different from each other – even those stoic southpaws offer contrasts, what with Chanderpaul’s French cricket approach at the crease and Border’s coiled snarl of a stance – only adds to the intrigue.

And so it should be, because the sub-continent is where cricket comes to think. Here, muscle won’t get you nearly as far as magic. Strokes are caressed more than they are carved. The ball is bowled with the intention to bamboozle, not to bruise.

Cricket here is a thing of wonder. That it happens at all is worth thought, what with the heat, dust, monsoon and mad crush of a billion bodies and more all competing for a spot of time and space. But that it takes such high levels of skill and discipline to play cricket well in the sub-continent is too often overlooked in the world beyond these boundaries.

That, mind, before we consider the state of pitches or the travails SA have endured on their current tour of India.

“The high backlift and hard grip are good for hard wickets, but not in India and when you play on turning wickets. The problem is that (SA) are allowing the spinners to dominate. (Ravichandran) Ashwin is probably playing on their minds and one can see when he comes on that they are hesitant.”

That’s Mohinder Armanath, better known during the 1970s and 80s as Jimmy. Unusually for that era of Indian cricket, Armanath scored nine of his 11 centuries away from home in places like Perth – Jeff Thomson and all – and Sydney.

He rejoiced in hooking fast bowling off his nose. Think of him as an Indian Kevin McKenzie, although he did wear a helmet.

If a man of Armanath’s mind can’t tell SA how to play in India, no-one can. But there must be more to it than that.

Perhaps the secret is that the famous five above are also among the most patient and disciplined men yet to pick up a bat.

Or not: Everton Weekes, Brian Lara and Clive Lloyd are still the top runscorers in individual test series in Asia, and they were all among the most attacking players of their generations. Go figure.

Why honour matters, especially in victory

Times Media


THE happy smell of beer filled a room at the Wanderers around lunchtime on December 18 2006. With it, in a tumble of smiles and whites soaked with something other than sweat, came Rahul Dravid.

Well might Dravid have smiled as he sat down at that press conference. His Indian team had risen to the occasion and won a test in SA for the first time in 10 attempts.

Sreesanth had taken eight wickets in the match and Zaheer Khan five on a surface that was challenging to bat on without straining the extremes of what could be called a cricket pitch.

India had played a better game than SA and deserved to win. Not a mind in that room thought otherwise.

On Friday, just more than an hour after tea, the drumbeat clatter of spikes on a tiled floor accompanied Virat Kohli into a room at Jamtha in Nagpur.

Was there a mind in the room that did not have doubts about the manner in which India had clinched their test series against SA?

India’s captain was met with phrases like the “ugliness of batting” seen in a series that, after three matches, has yet to produce a century, and the “picture of distortion” created. He was asked whether he was “willing to accept collateral damage” in his ruthlessnesses to win.

And all that in one question from an Indian reporter.

First, Kohli balked at “ugliness”, saying, “That’s a very harsh word to use.”

Then he lunged forward defensively: “I don’t mind compromising a bit on averages as long as we’re winning test matches. Sometimes small contributions are bigger than big hundreds we get in test matches.”

Kohli squirmed at the suggestion that the overtly turning pitches that have limited the two decided tests to six out of a possible 10 days were the product of a “policy”.

“It is not a policy, it’s the conditions that you get in India. Otherwise you’re just playing test matches that will get you 500 runs an innings.

“You don’t create bowlers like that. You don’t win test matches like that. I think the key is to win test matches.”

What, someone wondered out loud, would people say?

“It doesn’t really matter. The fact is we’ve won the series. That is not going to change however many articles are written about the pitch, and however many articles are written about their batting and an undue advantage for our spinners.

“It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, results matter. That’s why we play this game – to win games.

“That’s exactly what has happened. We’ve won the series. We’ve sealed it here, and we’re very happy about that.”

By then, Hashim Amla had been and gone. But his words hung in the air like the smell of a Highveld thunderstorm.

Amla scored 307 runs in five innings in India in 2008. Two years later he reeled off two centuries and a double century in his three innings, two of them not out, for an average of 490.00. This time, he has scraped together 90 runs in five trips to the crease.

“When I came to India in 2008 and even in 2010, if I had to face Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh on wickets like this I don’t think I would have got any runs either. I put it down more to the wickets – facing Anil here would have been a nightmare.”

The Jamtha pitch “got more difficult to bat on; from day one to day three it got progressively worse”.

What’s the lesson?

“You want to lose honourably and you want to win honourably as well.”

Ah, yes – 2006 and all that.

Nagpur result etched into the earth

Times Media


AND so falls a record that has stood for the nine long years in which SA have not lost 14 away series. No. 15, it turns out, is where the rubber meets the road.

The final nail was hammered home at 3.22pm at Jamtha in Nagpur on Friday, when off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin ripped a delivery past everything Morne Morkel tried to thrust in its way and took out the left-hander’s leg stump.

With that, India won by 124 runs to claim the series. The clock was stopped at 52 minutes after tea on the third day.

Ashwin took 7/66 in the innings and 12/98 in the match. Only three Indians have taken more wickets in a single test, and only once has one of their bowlers conceded fewer runs in pursuit of a dozen or more scalps – Ashwin himself.

In his final, dominant spell, Ashwin bowled 29 balls and claimed 4/16. As he reaped those victims, he loomed taller than his 1.88 metres, his flurry of arms and elbows looked razor-tipped, and his hot, heavy intensity could be felt a hundred and more metres away behind a plate glass window and despite full-blown air-conditioning.

SA delivered their most stoic batting performance of the series, but it was not enough – and was never going to be enough – to put them within sight of their target of 310, which was almost 100 runs bigger than any of the three totals they had posted in their previous four innings.

However, the visitors will take with them to the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi, where the suddenly insignificant fourth test will start on December 3, the hope that Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis, their troubled senior batsmen, have turned the corner.

Amla stayed alive for more than three-and-a-half hours, Du Plessis was there for three hours, and together they defied the twitchy, testy Indians for 173 minutes in a stand of 72 – by more than an hour SA’s longest partnership of the series.

They were dismissed a dozen balls apart, Amla smartly caught by a leaping Virat Kohli in the gully and Du Plessis bowled trying to pull a straight delivery that kept low. Leg spinner Amit Mishra struck both blows.

With Amla and Du Plessis went whatever mad dream SA might have had of winning this unwinnable match.

By then AB de Villiers had been picked off lbw by a straightening carrom ball from Ashwin and, in the 10th over after Du Plessis was out, JP Duminy offered no stroke to Ashwin and was also leg-before.

Ashwin was bowling with a second new ball for the first time in the seven completed innings seen in this series.

The pitch was the awfulness it has been throughout this match, and worse. But SA found ways to survive on it for long enough to create the impression that they had resigned themselves to the unfairness of it all.

Prospering on this pitch out of the question. But, hey, you can’t have everything. And it’s not as if anyone thought the outcome would be different.

Friday’s result had been written on the wall for days. Or should that be etched into a particular slab of earth?