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Domestic pitches not my fault: Sundaram

By Ashish Magotra
February 23, 2005 14:01 IST
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VVS Laxman 29. Rahul Dravid 1. Sachin Tendulkar 4. Parthiv Patel 25. Dinesh Karthik 10...

The scores above would suggest an unusually severe drubbing at the hands of a rampant Australia -- but they are, in fact, taken from the ongoing Duleep Trophy game between South Zone and West Zone, at the Visaka International Cricket Stadium, Uppal, Hyderabad.

South, batting first, managed 187. A West Zone led by none other than Tendulkar is, in response, at the time of writing this struggling on 197 for eight in just 65 overs.

Great bowling? Sub-par batting? Or just a sub-standard pitch? The question is intriguing, especially when you consider that in this domestic season, low scoring games have become increasingly common.

Questions on the state of pitches are best addressed to the Grounds and Wickets Committee of the Board of Control for Cricket in India -- and its chairman, Venkat Sundaram. We ask -- and it turns out that Sundaram is equally out of the loop.

Suggestions to the BCCI
1. Exam for curators, refresher courses have been suggested by me.
2. Funds to do research (soil analysis, identify best type of soil, analysis)
3. Curators should be employed by the Board. This way, they can be held accountable for the type of pitches they make and then they can be forced to follow Board guidelines.
4. All Duleep Trophy games and Irani trophy games should be done by the Committee.

"We don't do domestic matches," Sundaram says. "We did have our reservations of the Lucknow pitch, and we informed the BCCI about them. But there were some logistics problems and they couldn't shift the match. We don't do the Ranji matches; we do international matches. We are looking at grounds in the overall sense."

Curioser and curioser -- how, for instance, can the committee supposedly responsible for pitches not 'do' pitches for the country's premier domestic competition, which after all is the litmus test of a player's eligibility for the international stage?

What 'overall sense' of looking at pitches excludes domestic cricket?

Examine what is at stake: The Pakistan tour is, television rights and high courts permitting, just days away. India is yet to name its team; the selectors are, presumably, watching performances in the Duleep Trophy. The ongoing game has two key players making a comeback from injury, in Irfan Pathan and Sachin Tendulkar. It has a veteran -- VVS Laxman -- trying to make a case for his spot in the lineup, against the challenge of emerging talent.

With all this at stake, the pitches committee knew the wicket was sub-standard; it informed the BCCI; and the game was played at the venue anyway because of "logistical problems"? Meaning that in India, there was no ground ready, able and willing to host a match of this importance at a moment's notice?

But then, as Sundaram says, none of this is the responsibility of the pitches committee -- and it is difficult to know just whose it is, since there is no committee in existence to look at domestic pitches.

For his part Sundaram, a former Ranji player, is elated that we are now seeing more bowler-friendly wickets. "I hope there are more wickets where batsmen have difficulty in getting even 200 on the first day, because I am tired of being told that our batsmen score 500 in a local match and when they go abroad they struggle. We need to have wickets where batsmen and bowlers have a chance to display their skills."

In course of a casual chat the other day, chairman of national selectors Kiran More told this reporter that when it comes to selecting cricketers to represent India, the selectors give tremendous weightage to performances on India 'A' tours and in Duleep Trophy matches. To be able to judge the real quality of a cricketer, More said, you need to have pitches that allow him to show his true talent.

Sundaram agrees, and believes that much remains to be done. "I feel we need to train curators and educate them," the pitches chief says. "Preparing wickets is a science. Ask the people you have spoken to whether they have ever prepared a wicket? Have they ever used a mover or a roller? Do they know anything about grass? They don't. They might have played for the country, but when it comes to preparing wickets they know nothing. When you talk of 'Greens Management', it is a very scientific process and it calls for educating the curators. Right now, the art of preparing pitches is handed down over the generations. That has to change."

Sundaram pointed out that India's ten Test pitches -- Bangalore, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Mohali, Kanpur, Nagpur, Kolkata, Cuttack and Chennai) -- were being relaid, "and those centers are behaving well now."

But on the day, he says, what matters is the sort of wicket that was prepared for the match in question. For instance, he points out, Mumbai's pitch preparation for the game against Australia in the recent home series, which India lost.

Mumbai is not the only offender, however -- the last Test match played at Ahmedabad, between India and New Zealand, was a dull dreary match on a pitch that offered no assistance to the bowlers. The Kanpur wicket (venue for the recent Test between India and SA) too hasn't improved much. Nagpur was another venue where the Indians really struggled in the recent series against Australia -- this time, because its pace and bounce suited the Aussie quicks to perfection.

The crux of the problem, says Sundaram, is that the pitches committee is essentially toothless -- it can bark, but has no bite. "We don't have a way to punish the curators," Sundaram points out. "There is no mechanism in place. Empower us to take decisions."

The sole silver lining is that Indian wickets are no longer the fast bowler's graveyard they used to be. Case in point -- medium pacer R P Singh is the top wicket taker in the domestic season, with 34 wickets in six matches; 13 medium pacers are among the top 20 wicket takers in the Ranji championship this season.

"There are also hardly any teams scoring 500 runs," Sundaram points out. "The norm is now closer to 350. And you are getting outright results in Duleep Trophy and Ranji Trophy. Now at least there is a contest, and that's what we are looking to do."

Given the unpredictability of the wickets used in the Duleep Trophy thus far, it is anyone's guess what the tracks on offer for the Pakistan series will be like.

"The process of preparing pitches for the Pakistan tour has just started," Sundaram says. "I would like to have a little bit of grass and seam movement initially. The ball should come on to the bat and that's what I want to see -- a good game of cricket.

"This question of last minute changes has to stop. The captain cannot and should not do that (try to alter the nature of the pitch at the 11th hour)," Sundaram, a former manager of the side, says. But an instant later, he changes tack to see things from the captain's point of view.

"If it has happened, it has happened for good reasons. He is the captain of the team, there is a lot of pressure on him. The media will throw him out tomorrow, and so will the selection committee, if he loses. Home advantage should always be there. It's the curator's job to prepare the wicket and it's the cricketers job to play on it. That's how it should be."

A few days back, Sundaram told the media that pitches for the series against Pakistan will not be doctored -- but again, he seemed willing to provide the 'home advantage' if the BCCI suggests it.

"People don't want to see draws, and we have realized that -- but that doesn't mean that you doctor the pitch so that you get a result," Sundaram says. "But if the BCCI tells me to do it [give the home side an advantage], I will do it. Sometimes the home advantage for an international match has to be kept in mind because there are national interests involved."

The dichotomy inherent in these conflicting statements signals one thing -- the pitches committee, and its chairman, has no clear mandate one way or other, no clearly defined brief. The committee is responsible for pitches in India but has no authority to monitor those in use for domestic competitions. The committee is responsible for pitches, but cannot punish errant curators or grounds. The committee would like competitive pitches, but is willing to alter the pitch to suit the demands of the BCCI, or the captain, or both.

Keep this in mind, the next time you see a sub-standard game being played out on an under-prepared pitch.

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Ashish Magotra

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