Bangalore: Like the chicken-and-egg question, this one too is difficult to answer. Is it the attitude of Asian teams and administrators that’s responsible for deplorable pitches, or do the dire surfaces give rise to such an approach? Either way, you don't need to be Einstein to figure out why attendances for Test cricket in this part of the world are dismal.
Those governing the game and playing it – or writing about it – can go on as long as they want to about Test cricket being the ultimate challenge for a cricketer. The average punter, who pays to come through the turnstiles, wants to see proof of that. He or she doesn't want an apology of a contest where the bowlers are about as relevant as an item girl in a Bollywood movie.
Consider the last match played at what is possibly the most unfair venue in the world. Rain may have played a part in the Test at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground, but the numbers still make for horrid reading. There were 1128 runs scored in 311.4 overs, during which just 20 wickets fell. Four centuries were made, which the neutral will forget within the week. Save for Junaid Khan’s triumph-of-the-will five-wicket haul, there was nothing to take away from the match.
If I think back over the 75 Tests that I've covered, the worst ones were all played in Asia. There were the two abominations in Pakistan in 2006, at Lahore and Faisalabad. Virender Sehwag was criticised for being ignorant of a record that he and Rahul Dravid just missed out on – Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy had added 413 for the first wicket four decades earlier – but his blasé approach put in to perspective the value of runs made on such a somnolent surface.
When the series finally got to Karachi and Irfan Pathan and Mohammad Asif wreaked havoc, I remember discreetly pumping my fists in celebration. After 10 days of one-sided rubbish, the soul felt healed to see batsmen put in their place.
The first two games had awakened memories of the series that had almost killed my interest in cricket. Till it got to Bangalore and a raging turner where Sunil Gavaskar’s mastery in his final innings wasn’t enough to stave off Imran Khan’s side, the India-Pakistan series of 1987 was as dire a contest as you could imagine.
Years later, CD Gopinath, who toured Pakistan in the 1950s, told me of how both teams would be paralysed by fear of defeat in the decade following the trauma of Partition. Three decades on, little had changed. I remember Imran getting Gavaskar first ball in Jaipur, but little else save for the Bangalore game. The next match saw Gavaskar score his 10,000th run, an achievement that was easy to overlook given that it took place in one of most mind-numbing games ever played.
Pakistan crawled to 130 for 4 on the first day, and made 135 for 2 from 99 overs in their second innings, despite leading by 72. Rizwan-uz-Zaman made 58 from 252 balls, while Younis Ahmed remained unbeaten after a cavalier 34 from 226 deliveries. Had euthanasia been an option, some in the crowd might have contemplated it.
It’s not as though it's only the subcontinent that produces high-scoring draws. There have been a few at The Oval, while Adelaide is usually extremely batsman-friendly. Towards the end of its life, the Antigua Recreation Ground was as placid as any Asian ground. But when it comes to high-scoring bore draws, Asia still leads the way, by a distance.
In the past 10 years, 16 of the 47 Tests played in Sri Lanka have been drawn. That one-in-three ratio is maintained by India, which has seen 37 draws in 106 Tests. Contrast that with England [34 draws in 128 Tests] or Australia [19 in 116] and it’s not hard to see why we have a problem.
Some draws can be thrilling. Recall the tension of the two Tests that England survived in South Africa in 2009-10, or the nail-biting that accompanied India’s great escape –rain helped – at Lord's in 2007. But when you talk of Ahmedabad 2009 or Hyderabad 2010, it's not biting the nails, but tearing hair out that comes to mind.
Nearly every memorable game played on the subcontinent has been on spin-friendly surfaces. India and Australia contested a lottery of a Test match at the Wankhede Stadium in 2004. Underprepared surface or not, it gave spectators a rollercoaster ride. No one went home feeling anaesthetised. The same was the case at Kanpur in 2008, when a lower-order rally in the first innings turned the game India’s way against South Africa.
Sadly, such contests have become rare because ICC match referees appear to have an inherent bias against pitches that aid turn. In 2005, the Ahmedabad Test against Sri Lanka saw a result on the fifth morning. You’d think that’s what everyone would want. But no, the pitch was reported for not being up to standard.
One of the best games I’ve seen in Asia didn't get the finale that it deserved. Anil Kumble's 7 for 48 on the opening day gave India the advantage at Chepauk, and Sehwag built on it with an innings for the ages. Only Damien Martyn’s magnificent defiance took it to a fifth day, washed out by rain. A more capricious match referee might well have administered a slap on the wrist because the surface enabled a slow bowler to take seven on the opening day.
No such action is ever taken against venues like the SSC, where the average runs per wicket over the past ten years is 55.04, way over the national average of 40.96 which is itself higher than India, England or Australia. Five days of action may guarantee you TV money, but it remains to be seen how long broadcasters will shell out fistfuls of dollars for a spectacle that only a masochist wants to see.