India – South Africa Tests: Fair or foul?

I think there would hardly have been a cricket-lover in India who would not have salivated at the prospect of an India-South Africa four-test series. After all, these two teams have, between them, some of the finest players in the world cricket today.

On the batting side, we have the classy Hashim Amla, South Africa’s captain, India’s own Virat Kohli, commonly considered the successor to Sachin Tendulkar’s mantle as India’s best batsman, Ajinkya Rahane, whose overseas record has raised such hopes among lovers of the five-day game, and of course, AB De Villiers, who is probably the best batsman in world cricket in the last decade (though Alistair Cook could make a case for himself as well).

Among the bowlers there was the prospect of seeing Dale Steyn send down his thunderbolts, and R. Ashwin spin a web around the batsmen. Equally exciting were the youngsters – Kagiso Rabada had shown much promise in the ODI series preceding the Tests, and Umesh Yadav was showing signs of becoming the first genuine quick India has seen since Ishant Sharma first came on the scene.

Instead, we have had seven days of cricket in total, no centuries scored, and an uproar over the nature of the pitches prepared.

Spin has ruled so completely over the batsmen that not a single century has been scored; no fast bowler has taken wickets, and spinners like Dean Elgar and Imran Tahir, who would probably have been taking to the cleaners by a club side, are taking five-wicket hauls.

The Bangalore test was unfortunately washed out, but in both Mohali and Nagpur, the ball has turned from Day one, batsmen of both sides have found themselves in two minds about how to negotiate the spinners, a score of twenty has been celebrated like a fifty, and a thirty is no less than a century.

That India stands triumphant at the end of three tests is hardly a surprise. After Graeme Swann’s retirement, Ashwin is probably the best spinner in cricket today (not that that’s saying much), and Jadeja is definitely a threat on home pitches. For South Africa, the dominance they had built on the backs of Grame Smith and Jacques Kallis was already showing signs of becoming an over-dependence on DeVilliers and Amla, and with the latter being in bad form for most of the series, they found themselves lacking the batting to stand up to the spin threat.

From a purely competitive perspective, then, there is no doubt that India has been the better team of the two in the conditions in which the matches have been played. To that extent, this is a fair result. Pitches have been laid, tosses have been won and lost, and Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara have stayed at the crease long enough to give India just enough runs to put targets out of South Africa’s reach.

So why the furore? Why has the media, especially the international media, been quick to label the pitches diabolical and against the spirit of the game? Most importantly, who is

There are three arguments that can be made here, and I will try to quickly go over each.

The first is that preparing pitches where the match has no possibility of lasting five days is cheating the spectators of watching a fair game. Cricket is supposed to be a contest between bat and ball, and it is inherently unfair that the conditions give one of these (the ball, in this case), a massive advantage over the bat.

The second, a direct counter-argument to the above, is that conditions vary from place to place and it is the duty of the players to deal with them. India has always prepared such tracks, and teams of old could handle them with ease. When England toured India a few years ago, in fact, they turned the tables on India by virtue of the fact that they had better spinners than India did, and their batsmen showed tremendous batting ability to eke out a series win. So merely preparing spinning tracks does not inherently mean that India is seeking an unfair advantage.

The third argument is that this is an effort to malign India’s success by the foreign media, since pitches abroad too have been just as much in favour of bowlers, though it is usually fast bowlers who are thus favoured. Examples of pitches at Trent Bridge (England), Kingsmead (South Africa) and from the past, Perth (Australia) and Jamaica (West Indies) have been mentioned.

Of these, the third argument, I believe, should be discounted – after all, two wrongs do not make a right, so ‘they did it too’ is no more valid an excuse here than it is in politics.

But there is a lot of merit, in my view, in the first two arguments, and frankly, I too, would leave it to my readers to make their decision on this.

On one hand, batsmen of both teams have let themselves down, with no one showing the application to really build an innings, as Rahul Dravid or Shivnaraine Chanderpaul used to do in the past, rather preferring to try and hit out, a strategy that rarely ever works.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that in Mohali and Nagpur, the ball never seemed to bounce truly at any stage of the match, while in the past, there would be at least two days out of five when pitches, whether spin-friendly or pace-friendly, are conducive to batting. There was a distinct feeling that anyone who pitched the ball slow could get purchase out of this pitch, regardless of skill. To that extent, the criticism is fair as well.

As with all matters sports-related, there are two sides to this story as well. So which side are you on?

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