Ahmedabad: Even before the first ball of England’s Test series against India has been bowled, the strategising has reached fever pitch. India’s players, remember, have not yet begun their three-day camp ahead of the series, and will just be assembling in Mumbai to meet each other and sort out what needs to be done to erase the memories of the 4-0 result they were at the wrong end of in England last year.
Already, there have been many mini skirmishes off the field. To start with, the Indian selectors fielded an India A team that did not include a single specialist spinner, on a beauty of a batting pitch that ensured that even the seam quartet of Ashok Dinda, Vinay Kumar, Parvinder Awana and Irfan Pathan had little say.
For the second warm-up match, the Board of Control for Cricket in India put up a Mumbai A team – and to be fair they had little choice here, with all the premier cricketers being involved in the first round of Ranji Trophy matches – that included Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara. So, while a potential reserve opener and a newly bedded-down Test No. 3 got some game time against a quality attack, they gave little away.
Mumbai A went to extent of leaving out Sagar Goriwale, the lone specialist spinner in the squad, even after Balwinder Singh Sandhu Jr., the medium-pacer, was taken ill on the morning of the game. This meant that England played a second-string team that had only three specialist bowlers.
When the Indian squad for the series was announced, Harbhajan Singh was back in the mix despite having achieved little in his one year out of the Test side, giving a clear indication of the kind of pitches England could hope to play on when the Tests began.
The only issue here, however, was that at least two of the four venues where the Tests will be played – Ahmedabad and Nagpur – have never been rank turners or under-prepared surfaces. Rather, they have been slow pitches that took turn late, and even then without much menace. The reason for this was that both venues have been conscious of the challenges the harsh sun can pose in those conditions, necessitating a high percentage of clay content in the block that comprises the square.
That, however, has already changed in Ahmedabad, if sources are to be believed. Wisden India has learned that the pitch at Motera has been re-laid, specifically to ensure that the elements are allowed to play a part in natural wear and tear. Until recently, the primary constituent of the pitch block was pond clay, which had a clay content that was in the range of 70-80%. This meant that the block held together remarkably well, breaking up in only the most extreme circumstances.
What the Gujarat Cricket Association has done, however, is to reduce the clay content in the block to something approaching 55%, using farm-land clay rather than pond clay, and mixing it with 35% sand content. This process was begun in early September, soon after a BCCI conclave on pitch preparation. In layman’s terms, what this does is make the pitch-block more amenable to wear and tear, bringing the spinners into play earlier than before. What it’s also likely to do is make the surface more abrasive, bringing reverse swing too into the picture.
While the move to give spinners a bigger say in the game will be welcomed by the Indian team, whose recent home wins against the West Indies and New Zealand have been powered by the R Ashwin-Pragyan Ojha duo, they will be the first to know that pitch preparation is an inexact science. In theory, the pitch should play to India’s strengths, but it’s never easy to predict how a re-laid pitch will behave.
The four-day warm-up match between England and Haryana will be played on the B Ground at Motera on a pitch that has plenty of live grass on it. The net bowlers who gave Kevin Pietersen a workout on Wednesday, who play almost all their cricket at the B Ground, told Wisden India they had never seen such a green pitch anywhere in Gujarat before this game. Andy Flower, England’s team director, had a look at the B Ground pitch, but was yet to examine the surface on which the Test would be played.
Dhiraj Parsana, the former allrounder who was a Ranji stalwart but played only two Tests for India and is in charge of pitch preparation at Motera, declined to speak to the media.