The nature of the pitch for the second Test match between India and England was a talking point from the second day of the series opener at the same venue, when India’s bowlers struggled to take wickets and England ended the day’s play on 355/8 with no intention of declaring. By the time England wrapped up an unprecedented 227-run win on the fifth afternoon, much of the talk had shifted from India’s poor batting and 27 no-balls and James Anderson’s masterclass of reverse swing to what sort of track the Chennai curator would prepare for the second Test starting in three days.
A day before the start of the second Test, the Chennai strip wore a darker and drier look and talk was of the match getting over inside four days. On day one, when in the ninth over of the match, bowled by the left-arm spinner Jack Leach, the first ball hit the sticker of Cheteshwar Pujara’s bat, you could almost hear a collective groan from England supporters and started to wonder by how many runs India would win this Test, and on what day.
Over the next three-and-a-half days of this match, voices differed in opinion of this track. Understandably, the voices of dissent were largely from outside of India. Fifteen wickets well on day two of this second Test, by all accounts the ‘moving day’ of the match. Ten of those were English, as Ashwin and Axar Patel routed the visitors for their lowest first-innings total in India on a wearing surface termed as a “beach” by former England captain Michael Vaughan and “unacceptable” by retired Australia batsman Mark Waugh.
By stumps, India were 54/1 with a lead of 249. They batted on to a lead of 481 and then won by 317 runs, their biggest Test win over England. If this pitch was poor, how did India score 615 runs on it? How did Rohit Sharma and R Ashwin combine for 306 runs to England’s 298 across two innings?
Since 2006, when the ICC introduced its pitch and outfield monitoring process, nine Full-Member international cricket stadiums have received ‘poor’ ratings from the ICC and four have been in India. In 2008, Kanpur’s Green Park Stadium copped flak after a three-day Test in which the ball turned square from the first session and India’s spinners snared 14 of the 20 South African wickets to fall across 143.2 overs. After the match, the ICC deemed the Kanpur surface as being too dry and offering too much turn and inconsistent bounce.
In 2009, Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla was banned from hosting international cricket for a year after an ODI between India and Sri Lanka was called off after 23.3 overs on account of the pitch having “extremely variable bounce” and being “too dangerous for further play” according to the ICC.
In 2015, Nagpur was the host of a Test match which did not last three days and saw South Africa bowled out for 79 and 185 and 33 of 40 wickets to fall being taken by spinners. In 2017 in Pune, Australia stunned India in the series opener with unheralded left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe taking 12 wickets, which remain the best figures by a visiting spinner in India.
And while we have to wait and see if the ICC deems this track poor, what we know is that this Chennai strip is none of the above.
As Joe Root said after the loss, this was a challenging surface from day two and India outplayed England in all departments. This is why it is called Test cricket, because you counter different kinds of tracks across the world. India have faced this overseas, and lost badly. They also beat South Africa on a minefield in Johannesburg in 2018. Australia were bowled out for 60 on a wildly seaming green top at Trent Bridge during the 2013 Ashes. In 2011, Australia out-bowled and out-batted a Sri Lankan team featuring Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumara Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Thilan Samaraweera, Angelo Mathews, Rangana Herath and Suranga Lakmal in a Galle Test that ended on day four. Of the first 30 wickets to fall, 18 went to spin. The debutant offspinner Nathan Lyon claimed five of those. The Galle pitch, which Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting said turned on day one like it was a fifth-day track, received a poor rating from the ICC for excessive turn.
There is no getting around the fact that this Chennai pitch aided turn from day one. But it was not dangerous and there was no wildly exaggerated turn. There was inconsistent bounce, but not in the Kanpur-Nagpur-Pune-Galle manner. England ended up falling far behind India not because of the Chennai pitch, but because of their cricket versus India’s. In Ashwin and Axar, India had the spinners to succeed on this deteriorating surface and we have to acknowledge that bowling on pitches that assist too much turn or seam or swing is an art.
It is unsportsmanlike to point to the Chennai pitch and say that is the reason England lost. Yes, this pitch offered sharp turn from day one. Yes, there were puffs of dust on all four days. But conditions were the same for both teams and only one did better with the bat and ball. And that is the team you would back to succeed in such conditions, India.
India’s batsmen, on the basis of what we saw across three-and-a-half days, negotiated this turning track far better than England’s did. And this is also due to how inconsistent England’s spinners were in their lines and lengths, evidenced by the number of full tosses sent down by Moeen Ali, in particular, and Leach during India’s first innings. Before India started batting a second time in this Test, England’s spinners’ full toss count had reached 36 as compared to the seven bowled by India’s. Where Ashwin and Axar and Kuldeep Yadav, even in his six overs, kept a lid on scoring opportunities, England’s were not as restrictive.
Facing Ashwin and Axar on day two on a deteriorating track, most of England’s batsmen played them from the crease and this led to their downfall. In contrast, we saw Rohit, Ajinkya Rahane and Rishabh Pant advance and sweep a lot during India’s first innings. On the third morning, India lost five wickets when England’s spinners were bowling. Not one of those dismissals was because of the pitch.
Did the pitch contribute to their dismissals? Put doubts in their minds? Force them to play rash shots? It us unlikely. Pujara was run out by short leg in a freak occurrence. Rohit was beaten for turn by Leach when stretching forward – there was no puff of dust – and stumped exceptionally by Ben Foakes. Pant charged Leach, swung across the line and was stumped by a yard. Rahane inside-edged to a diving Ollie Pope at short leg. Axar was beaten on the inside edge when prodding forward to Moeen’s offbreaks.
Ashwin swept and lofted his way to 34 off 38 balls by lunch. He got a long way forward to smother the spin and used his feet to Leach, Moeen and Root. Kohli used his crease expertly to negate the turn on offer and mastered the changes of pace from Leach to collect a half-century which was the prototype of how to bat on this surface. Ashwin followed him to his own fifty while looking secure at the crease.
When England began their impossible chase of 482, it was a matter of when India would wrap up victory. Three wickets fell before stumps as the ball continued to bit and jump up, and three fell on the third morning as Ashwin continued his master of England’s batsmen. The end came soon after lunch with Axar claiming a deserved five-wicket haul and Kuldeep taking two to put a smile back in his face. Not surprisingly, the talk of a ‘poor’ pitch dissipated.
It is also pertinent to remember that the type of balls used in these two Tests in Chennai were the same. After the first Test, Kohli and Ashwin complaining about the SG ball was just cribbing. There was not a word spoken against the same SG ball during or after the second Test.
Yes, we will wait with interest to see the ICC’s pitch report for this Test. But this match was a test of skill, patience and endurance. On all counts, just as England did in the first Test, here it was India who outdid their opponents.