Kolkata: Prabir Mukherjee, the curator at Eden Gardens, has made the build-up to the third Test between India and England all about the pitch – helped in large measure, of course, by Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s one-item wish list: rank turner. The track chosen is browner than the grey pitches it is flanked by, and the bowlers’ run-up from the Ranji Trophy game barely three weeks ago is clearly visible. So perhaps, Mukherjee’s bravado (“This is immoral. I need written instructions from the Board to prepare a turning track”) was merely that, sound and fury signifying nothing.
The ‘used’ pitch might take turn early but it is unlikely that India will risk a third spinner on it. If they do, it will be Harbhajan Singh’s 100th Test. The offspinner is down with the flu, and Yuvraj Singh had a minor injury at the nets, but Dhoni will have the full squad to choose from on Wednesday (December 5).
A medium-pacer was likely to replace Harbhajan anyway, especially since play starts at 9.00 am and the Eden Gardens has been kind to swing bowling in the past. Dhoni seemed to suggest at the pre-match press conference that medium-pacers might have a crucial role to play. The early dew has surprised Alastair Cook, who hopes the ball will “rip around” a lot more. With light fading early, the stadium lights may be switched on to make up for time lost.
What India – and indeed England – will be hoping for is that their middle order averages a figure close to Mukherjee’s age, which is 83. Cheteshwar Pujara apart, it has been flaky, with Virat Kohli yet to find form and Sachin Tendulkar carrying the weight of a possible final innings on his shoulders. Yuvraj began well in Ahmedabad but has not looked the part, and Dhoni has struggled both behind and in front of the stumps. But it is unlikely that there will be changes in the batting line-up.
There is, however, a possibility that it might not be conventional medium-pace that will be decisive, but reverse swing. Stranger things have happened on ‘used’ pitches. England are likely to play Steve Finn who, in his own words, is “ready to go.” The cutely-named ‘Playing Control Team’ of the ICC (Match Referee and the umpires) certainly appears to think it is a done deed. In its note to the teams, it has said that a bowler breaking the stumps in the act of bowling will be spoken to and the ball declared dead. Finn is the one notorious for this. Also likely to return is Ian Bell, who is back after greeting his new-born back home.
Dhoni found support from his counterpart on the question of preparing spinning tracks. Cook was probably hiding his joy at this unexpected help from Dhoni when he said, “A turning wicket gives both sides a chance.” The fact is, England have the better spinners as well as the better medium-pacers, and they hold the trumps however the wicket plays. India’s best bet might have been a flat track which will throw the responsibility on the batsmen.
On the last three occasions here, India made over 600 runs each time, but a tall-scoring draw is the least likely of all the outcomes now.
It is difficult not to sympathise with Mukherjee, though. In a short week, he has become the best-known curator in the world. In another week, he will become either a national hero or a villain who will be spoken of in hushed whispers when children are present. All he wants, he says now, is a good match. And for once, you can’t argue with him.