How the Pune pitch backfired for India
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.
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