India vs South Africa: Intrigue surrounds Pune pitch, which has ranged from paata to sandpit

Devendra Pandey
Ravichandran Ashwin tries his (left) hand at left-arm spin. (AP)

It’s hard to ignore the cricket pitch in Pune, especially as the ICC rated it ‘poor and not to international standards’ last time India played a Test here in 2017. That one for the Australia game was a sandpit and six months later, more controversy hit the venue as local curator Pandurang Salgoancar was caught in a TV sting operation for ‘malpractice’.

All that background has meant the authorities are tight-lipped about the match pitch. There has been heavy rain in the last couple of weeks which has hampered preparation. The sun peeps out in the day but the city and the ground has been drenched by evening rains. India might have desired a turning track but with the elements playing havoc, they might not get it.

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Sources in the Indian team say that they don’t expect it to be a turner. And if the ground authorities don’t shave off the grass, it might be a paata (batting track). It does seem a dry pitch but with rain around and the surface under covers, some moisture is expected on the first day at least.

The South African camp wants to wait till the morning of the match to see the effects of grass-removal on the pitch, though they also concede, in private, that as of now it doesn’t look like a turner. They have also been a bit spooked out by the fact that they have been losing tosses regularly since the last time they were in India.

R Ashwin became the fastest Indian to reach 350 wickets in Test cricket. (File Photo)

As India concluded their practice session, the team management gathered for a close look at the track. Skipper Virat Kohli, who had just finished the presser, joined Rohit Sharma, head coach Ravi Shastri, bowling coach Bharat Arun and batting coach Vikram Rathour. Soon Salgaoncar too joined them along with the ground staff.

Unprecedented rains

The drainage system at the ground is efficient but unprecedented rain last week could have an effect. The association covers only the centre square and the outfield is kept uncovered as it’s sand-based and they reckon a game can restart within half an hour of heavy rain.

In domestic cricket, the players joke about it being a road though last year, the two Ranji Trophy games played here were won outright. But it certainly does change in character during international games. At times, it turns out to be a sandpit as it was in the Test against Australia. It has also helped seamers as it did in an ODI against Sri Lanka. No one is sure about how the current pitch would play.

Officially, the Indians said they weren’t too fussed about the track.

“The pitch can very well change with so much sun over the last three days. If there’s a bit of moisture that’s gone into the pitch, yeah it should be a good pitch to play on for seamers initially, and the ball does tend to turn here and batsmen for the first two days tend to get runs here with the quick outfield. We will have to play good cricket regardless of how the pitch plays. If it’s damp so be it, if it’s hard and good to bat on, we have to bat well or bowl well. None of us know how the pitch will behave tomorrow morning,” Kohli said.

It’s clear the first day will provide some assistance to bowlers, but the track does tend to help batsmen as the match progresses. It could be a tricky decision to make at the toss.