India v Australia, 1st Test, Pune February 26, 2017

How the Pune pitch backfired for India

Even though the pitches at the MCA Stadium in Pune have usually been flat or have assisted seamers, preparing a rank turner for its Test debut meant there was an accident waiting to happen
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Conceding 160 lead on such a pitch was criminal - Kohli

The first Test in Pune must have been a near déjà vu for Cheteshwar Pujara. Exactly a year to this day, he was part of a mauling with his side bowled out for 235 and 115 in a three-day innings defeat at the same ground in Pune. Pujara scored 4 and 27 then, and 6 and 31 this time. Except in that whole match, the Ranji Trophy final between Mumbai and Saurashtra, only five overs of spin was bowled. There is a reason to it: the MCA Stadium in Pune has one of the flattest pitches in India and the only way to get results in four-day matches here is through seam and not spin.

The Ranji final last year was one of those matches. Otherwise fast bowlers do twice as well as spinners in first-class cricket here. Not counting the Pune Test, they average 32 against spinners' 63. In outright results, the fast bowlers' average drops to 28 as against 59 for spinners. In drawn matches, the quicks fare worse than the overall where the spinners' average remains somewhat similar.

Every square has core characteristics, and Pune's is carry. The curator Pandurang Salgaoncar, former Maharashtra tearaway, wears the bounce as a badge of honour. Yet Pune's Test debut was played out on an extreme turner that resulted in ignominy for India: a three-day defeat by 333 runs, 12 wickets to unheralded spinner Steve O'Keefe and a match total of 212, their lowest for two all-out innings in India.

This was an accident waiting to happen. Ravi Shastri, former director of the Indian team, has said on air, in his role as commentator now, that he had asked for the pitches India laid out for South Africa in Mohali and Nagpur. Both were three-day wins for India, but in both those Tests India won the toss. Such pitches stay okay for about a session, and they get progressively worse. India's score of 107 in the second innings in Pune was about par for such pitches. That makes winning the toss crucial, which can't be good news for the No. 1 side in the world who have the superior skill in normal Indian conditions.

The other thing such pitches do is level the playing field for spinners. A spinner like O'Keefe, who is not the most threatening bowler on good pitches, can become as unplayable as Ravindra Jadeja through proper tactics and application. Most importantly, unlike South Africa, Australia came prepared for exactly this. They spent hours in Dubai playing the line of the ball, training their mind to not worry when beaten and their hands to not follow when a ball turns big. They batted without the front pad on, making sure they trained themselves to play with the bat and avoid the lbw to the unpredictable straight bat.

India were out-strategised. Their spinners kept bowling the traditional spinner's lengths, and their batsmen played the old-fashioned way in the second innings when you needed street-smarts to master such tracks, the way Steven Smith did. Apart from Kanpur, the first Test of this season, India have played the whole season on pitches that turned out to be traditional Indian tracks. There was one that helped the New Zealand seamers, in Kolkata. Yet India had stayed unbeaten in a long home season by the time Australia came calling. They came prepared for conditions that were part lottery, and lottery they got.    

The only question that remains is: did Salgaoncar go too far in ensuring home advantage or whether this was exactly what India had asked for. These pitches don't show up out of the blue, especially when the opposition lost the series in Sri Lanka on rank turners. Let's look at the preparation first. In the week leading up to the Test, Dhiraj Parsana, zonal head of the BCCI Ground and Pitches Committee, joined Salgaoncar. Two days before the Test, Daljit Singh, the chairman of the Pitches Committee, landed up.

India scored only 212 runs in the first Test in Pune © AFP

ESPNcricinfo has learnt from sources that over the four days leading upto the Test, the pitch got only about half the water it gets before a usual first-class match. Brushes were used to remove the grass and rough the pitch up. Only 2mm grass was left. Information of highs of 37 degrees over the week was readily available on every weather forecast site.

The curators are now not accessible. Salgaoncar was not at the ground the day after the Test, and refused to meet at his residence in Pune. Daljit is back in Chandigarh, but calling his phone drew no response.

ESPNcricinfo understands that given the nature of the soil, a mix of two different black clays, the pitch needed some grass to hold it together in such heat. That it was too big a risk to leave it as dry as it was left. The curators had relayed this information to those in power, but were overruled and were asked to give in to the team's demands conveyed to them through the BCCI top brass.

While experts called this a lottery pitch - Harabhajan Singh refused to even call it a pitch - and while Australia called this a pitch unlike any other they had played on, India's captain and coach didn't find much wrong with it.

When asked if there had been any demands made by the team, Virat Kohli said at the press conference: "I don't know. I didn't speak to anyone."

About the nature of the pitch, Kohli said: "I don't think it was any different from the turners that we played in the past. We just didn't play good cricket. You can ask me any sort of questions or any perception about the loss. We know exactly what happened, the mistakes that we made. External perceptions don't matter to us; they have never mattered to us."

The chances of India losing the Pune Test, though, had increased well before any cricket was played.

Stats inputs by Gaurav Sundararaman.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • big_al_81 on March 2, 2017, 17:48 GMT

    It really is an error of judgement for India to get pitch preparation wrong. Since India is the only place where they are world-beaters and they've managed to arrange a schedule where most of the rest of the world comes to them and they never travel anywhere remotely challenging - they should be able to stay number 1 for the next few decades as long as they don't go to England, Australia, South Africa or the Middle East and just play everyone at home (with an occasional trip to the West Indies where the conditions are basically the same as India these days - the great old days of bounce and carry in the Caribbean being long gone). Only kidding!

  • Peter_The_Average on March 2, 2017, 0:40 GMT

    India are very dependent on Kholi, he fails and they are in trouble. It is not like the old days when Tendulkar was the man, he had quality like Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman etc to step up if he failed. This generation of Indian batsman are just not in the same class.

  • imtiazjaleel on March 1, 2017, 13:19 GMT

    It is quite evident that even indian batsman struggle against good spin bowling. we have seen it before and will see in future. if we prepare a pitch which will turn after 3 days then India should win the toss otherwise they will lose again. I would rather prefer to have the pitch which will turn from day one and then there will be no toss advantage for both the teams and have to play well to win the match.

  • 444888 on March 1, 2017, 12:05 GMT

    I do not know why so much of fuss is being made about the Pune pitch in which India lost - it should be remembered that a team cannot go on winning ALWAYS - the law of averages caught up India as well as the Indian Captain - Virat Kohli himself has stated that the Pune pitch was not different from the turners that they had played in the past and that India did not play just good cricket - not complained about the pitch - If the pacers Starc or Hazzlewood had caused us defeat would these arguments have surfaced - India will come back strongly in the remaining tests to avenge the defeat and win the series

  • i_golam on March 1, 2017, 11:32 GMT

    " We just didn't play good cricket. You can ask me any sort of questions or any perception about the loss. We know ( ? ) exactly what happened, the mistakes that we made " ... Virat Kholi

  • SupportTestCricket on March 1, 2017, 9:45 GMT

    This article has some contradictions.

    Example:

    "That makes winning the toss crucial, which can't be good news for the No. 1 side in the world who have the superior skill in normal Indian conditions."

    "The other thing such pitches do is level the playing field for spinners. A spinner like O'Keefe, who is not the most threatening bowler on good pitches, can become as unplayable as Ravindra Jadeja through proper tactics and application."

    When the No 1 side is playing, toss or the nature of the pitch should not make a difference (especially home pitch, where you obviously have more experience of playing) And then you go on to say we have better playing skills in these conditions! In fact Australia showed better skills. And then you undermine the efforts of the bowler who took 12 wickets by comparing with Jadeja apparently a superior bowler who took less wickets on the same pitch. Forget the analysis. Kohli was right. We batted badly and lost. Or were not allowed to bat well

  • Raz2802 on March 1, 2017, 9:31 GMT

    In the last few years, Indian batsmen have been falling cheaply to spinners (even to ordinary ones like Dean Elgar of SA). If the batsmen of the 80s were to be batting on the same pitches then I do not think they could have fallen so cheaply. No way!

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    Very strangely, Indian batsmen's lack of skill against spinners is not being taken seriously in India. Nowhere in the media is this issue discussed persistently. All that we get to hear are comments from cricket experts only on what has happened few days back - with little or no concern for what has been happening in the last few years. Why?

    -----------

    It is safe to say Indian batsmen are of the IPL generation. I wonder if these players can play spin with the patience and determination that batsmen of the 80s did.

  • Marcio on March 1, 2017, 9:22 GMT

    SKOMMELLING CHAMPION, pie chuckers? Your attempt to compare Elgar with SOK is as ludicrous as Kohli's "part-time" jibe. And simply disrespectful. SOK is a genuine bowler. Elgar is a batsman who rolls the arm over now and again. SOK averages 23 runs a wicket in Australia. That's half what Ashwin does. If Ashwin and Jadeja are so great on "normal" wickets why aren't they averaging much less that Lyon and SOK in Australia? Instead they are averaging way more.

  • Vinay on March 1, 2017, 5:47 GMT

    Same problem vs England in that first test. Rank turners make average spinners look great. And these days, Indian batsmen play pace overseas better than they used to, but play spin at home worse than they used to.

  • r.tg on March 1, 2017, 5:41 GMT

    Shame, Ash+Jaddu didn't bowl as well as Lyon+OKeefe. Indians Rahane, Kohli are suspect against spin. Time to try K.Jadhav & K.Nair.

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