If you were to create a word cloud about the ongoing four-Test series between India and Australia, “pitch” will definitely be the biggest word in there. Pitches being the centre of attention is not new to Indian cricket, but the ongoing series has seen that scrutiny go through the roof. The International Cricket Council rated the surfaces in Pune and Bengaluru, which hosted the first two Tests, as “poor” and “below average” respectively, providing further fodder to the media.
As the circus moved to Ranchi for the third Test, the media, the Australian in particular, have all their mics and cameras pointed towards the strip, or three, in the middle of the ground. One Australian newspaper has already gone ahead and seemingly twisted Ranchi curator SB Singh’s words into making its readers believe that India had the chance to handpick one pitch out of the three to choose from.
Curating a Test match pitch in India is not the most envious job in the world right now. Former India player Sudhir Naik knows all about it, having curated the pitch at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium for nearly three decades. Naik played three Tests and two One-Day Internationals for India, and led Mumbai to the Ranji Trophy title in 1970-’71. He is also a renowned coach, with former India bowler Zaheer Khan being one of his protégés. However, it was his job as curator at Wankhede that gained Naik the most headlines.
Last June, Naik quit his post as the pitch consultant at Wankhede after first being put in charge following the 1987 World Cup. His last international match in charge was a one-dayer between India and South Africa in October 2015, when former India team director Ravi Shastri reportedly abused him for preparing a batting-friendly wicket with no assistance for spinners in what was a series-deciding game. India lost that match by 214 runs after South Africa posted 438 on the board batting first.
Naik would know what Singh and the other curators in this series have gone through. What he also knows very well is the science behind curating a cricket pitch. Naik has an MSc in Organic Chemistry from Mumbai University. With all the focus being on the pitch, perhaps this is a good time to try and figure out what exactly goes into preparing a Test match wicket. We see words like “rank turner”, “black and red soil”, “spitting cobras”, or “moisture in the pitch” being tossed around all the time. But what do these terms really mean?
Scroll.in spoke to Naik ahead of the third Test and picked his brain about the technical aspect of curating a pitch. Naik, 72, was quite candid, not just about the science, but also about the politics behind pitch curation in India.
Excerpts from the interview:
How does the type or colour of the soil make a difference in curating a pitch? Ranchi is supposed to have black soil, while Mumbai has red. How will a rank turner in Ranchi play differently from one in Mumbai?
Everywhere, local soil is different. The behaviour will be different depending on where you are in the world as far as bounce, turn and pace of the ball is concerned. In Australia, they have black soil all over and the wickets are fast, whereas in India, black-soil wickets are not fast. They are slow and the bounce is also less.
Black soil comes from various mountains or surfaces. In India, black soil comes from the river base and also from khets, fields. They have different characteristics. But all black soils in India are slow and low. The binding is also not very good. Some places have good binding, but not good bounce. On red soil, you get good bounce.
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There are other factors involved as well – you must know the correct technique to prepare wickets. How to water it, how much water to use depending on the temperature, when to roll... That plays a very important role. These days, you call anybody a curator, but everybody is not a curator. Because in England, Australia and New Zealand, they call them curators, so now we have started calling them curators.
Curator means you should have knowledge of the characteristics of the soil, how to analyse it, you must understand what it needs, the chemicals that you use, the fertilizers, you should know when to use them. You just can’t put fertilizers as and when you want. Arey, iske upar fertilizer daal de. Aisa nahi hota hai. (Hey, just put the fertilizer on it. It doesn’t work like that.) When to put the fertilizer is also important. After putting the fertilizer, how much water do you use? You should not overdose it. If you overdose, the fertilizer will become more diluted and go inside the soil.
Chemical processes are involved. Curators must have a chemistry background or be a horticulturist. But then horticulturists must also know how to roll on which soil. Basically, experience and educational background will help you to prepare good wickets.
How does rolling help in preparing wickets? What is the difference between using a heavy roller and a light roller?
For that, first, you need to understand how and when to water a pitch. Normally, it is always better to water [the pitch] in the evening. Do not water it during the daytime. Humans have definite timings for eating food. If you eat at regular times for years together, it helps your body. But if you eat at noon one day and at 3 pm the next day, that is not good for your body.
Similarly, if you water in the morning or afternoon it is not good for the grass. It is advisable to water in the evening. I read in the paper that just before the Indian team came to the ground [in Ranchi for practice on Tuesday], the groundsman had watered the pitch. That means he has watered it in the morning, which is very bad for the wicket.
Rolling is done normally during the day time. You have to see how much water is there in the soil. Depending on the consistency of the soil, you have to use a heavy or a light roller. If you use too much of a heavy roller, the grass dies. You can use a heavy roller initially and then, ultimately, in the last three or four days [before the Test], you have to prepare the wicket with a light roller only. You have to retain the moisture.
When you use the heavy roller, soil gets spread so much that the water comes up from the side and evaporates in the sun. Then, there is no moisture [in the soil]. If you use a heavy roller all the time, your grass becomes yellow, which means there is no moisture. The grass dies. That is why you have to use a light roller. That will give you life in the wicket. The wicket will become fast. If moisture is there, there will be movement and the ball can swing. Whoever understands these technical things can prepare a better wicket.
More grass on the wicket is equated with more seam movement. What is the science behind this?
If grass is there on the pitch, it should be green grass. There has to be moisture. When the ball pitches on the grass, it moves much faster and smoother off the pitch. If the grass is not there, when the ball pitches, there is resistance from the soil. So the speed reduces. If the grass is there, the speed of the ball does not reduce [after pitching] and continues with whatever speed the bowler has bowled.
If moisture is there in the surface and five or six feet above the surface, that moisture will help swing the ball. That is why you should use more water and keep the wicket green. It helps the pace bowlers initially. As the game progresses, all the moisture in the ground evaporates. From the third day onward, it becomes a dry wicket and does not swing more. Then it starts cracking and helping the spinners. That is the ideal cricket pitch, where everybody gets a chance to exploit the wicket.
At the same time, the batsman can also play shots if there is even bounce, because he knows that the bounce will only be knee-high, or stump-high. Accordingly, after half an hour of batting, he gets an idea and then he can play his shots. So you enjoy the batting also.
Now, if you prepare a pitch like Bengaluru, you cannot enjoy batting because the batsman is struggling all the time. He doesn’t know whether the next delivery will go knee-high, boot-high, elbow-high. Some deliveries will come up right up to your chest and some will not rise above your shoes. If the batsman is not certain, he will not play any shots because he gets only a fraction of a second [to react] after pitching. So he is defensive all the time and then you don’t enjoy batting.
On this [Bengaluru] wicket, you could not see Virat Kohli playing his shots. If normal wickets had been there, in these two Tests, he would have scored at least one hundred. Such wickets should not be prepared. It is detrimental for cricket. I don’t know what is going on in the Indian team’s mind because they are the best in the world. They have got a very good batting line-up, they have got good bowlers – pace and spin.
If you prepare a normal cricket pitch, everybody will perform and they will win the game. But I don’t know what is going on here – turning wicket and turning wicket. That means we don’t have confidence in ourselves. We only feel that we can get these foreigners out if we prepare a turning track because they cannot play well on it. It’s awful, but anyway.
Yes, the wickets did look better earlier in the home season…
No, against England also the wickets were bad. Right from the South Africa series [in December 2015], then against New Zealand too, all wickets were bad. Only thing was that the opposition did not have good spinners, so there was no fight between India and those teams. And here, Australia have got equally good spinners, so India is also struggling. Both teams are fighting against each other. It’s become a good fight. But against England and New Zealand, there wasn’t a single good spinner in the opposition, all were ordinary. So they could not exploit these wickets.
How does the ball know the difference between live grass and dead grass?
In dead grass, there is no moisture. If there is no moisture in the air around the wicket, the ball will not swing. On the dead grass, resistance is created and the ball travels a bit slower. On green grass, the resistance is not there so ball swings and at the same time the speed is maintained.
Is there a difference in method between preparing wickets in the Indian summer versus doing so in the winter?
Naturally, in the summer, more moisture evaporates off the pitch during the daytime. Five days prior to the start of the match, you have to maintain a certain level of moisture beneath the pitch. There has to be moisture up to three or four feet beneath the pitch. That moisture is sucked by the roots of the grass and it maintains the binding of the ground. But in winter, you have to water less because evaporation is less. If you don’t maintain that water level on the ground during summer, it will become a very dry wicket and start turning much earlier.
How long before a Test match do curators start preparing the pitch?
It depends on the type of the pitch. If your grassroots are good and well grown, then you can prepare a Test match pitch within four or five days also. But if grassroots are not good, you will take 10 or 12 days. On average, it takes around seven or eight days to prepare a wicket.
Why are surfaces re-laid and how does it make a difference? The Kolkata Test against New Zealand had a re-laid surface that supported the pacers. The Bengaluru surface against Australia was also re-laid and played quite differently from how it used to. Why does this happen?
When you are using a particular plot for many years, the properties of the soil change. [Old soil] doesn’t give life to the grass. It is better that you remove the old soil and put fresh soil, fresh grass on it. That will give better life to the pitch and the ball can swing, bounce better.
But relaying is not so easy. I’ve seen so many pitches that, two years after relaying, they don’t get good bounce. [This happens] because they don’t know how to roll, etc. There are some experts who can do it well, but a majority of the curators I’ve seen [in India] have taken a long time to get a good bounce after relaying. These days, by reading a lot of theories on Google, people have learnt a lot. But you must have practical experience also.
After how many years is it advisable to relay the surface?
It is better to relay a pitch after every eight or 10 years.
Has the nature of Indian pitches changed in the last two decades? Did the pitches spin more earlier? Or less? What has been the difference and why so?
The characteristics of the soil all over the world have changed because the earth is getting warmer and warmer. But at the same time, 20 years back and before that, we never used to prepare wickets that will suit our spinners. Remove the grass completely, make it bald and dry so that the ball turns from the first over – never. Earlier, normal pitches were prepared. On those kinds of wickets, it is ideal to play cricket.
What Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkataraghanvan, Bishen Bedi and all other spinners all over India have done in those days is really creditable – they have only played on cricket pitches, not on akhadas. Nowadays, whatever we are preparing, especially in the last four or five years, are all akhadas. Not cricket pitches. On such pitches, if spinners get so many wickets and statistically they are better than this fellow and that fellow, that is all hogwash. It’s not done.
The soil has changed a bit, but that can be adjusted. What has changed is our attitude – we don’t have confidence that our batsmen can face their pace bowlers, we feel that they cannot perform against our spinners, they will not score more runs and we can find a way to win. The attitude has changed – that is the only difference.