Is it time for neutral curators in cricket?
Cricket's glorious uncertainties could never have been better manifested than the current Australia-India series. After enjoying the scent of victory, series after series, totalling 19 matches at one stretch, India earned a knock that seems to have unsettled its rhythm no ends. It is more like a happening in a boxing ring where one contestant, let’s say the favourite, suddenly gets a numbing blow from the rival and struggles to find feet, let alone get back to winning ways.
Indian cricket team seems currently in very much that state but what has to be accepted is the sport's reach in the country and perhaps among the many more adoring fans staying overseas. Even in normal times, cricket fans have a hundred thousand things to suggest on the play, players and even the strategy. This is apart from the many that experts and former cricket stars pour in the media. The baffling dimensions that reactions can take of a sport's action can be mind boggling. So much for the popularity of cricket in India.
And so when pundits went wrong with the way the first Test went in Pune, expectedly there was an avalanche of outpourings. It was an interesting scenario. On the one hand, the accusing finger was on the pitch and the other the inability to execute the game plan of surprising the visitors with what was perceived as India's biggest strength -- the spin! It is doubtful if there is any sport other than tennis perhaps where playing conditions can be so critical to the outcome of the contest.
The 22-yard strip, it can be said, is steeped in mystery with the dice loaded, it was felt, heavily in favour of the host country. A few seasons ago much of Indian contribution to cricket-contests was preparing pitches that aided spin bowling. What with such stalwarts like Prasanna, Bishen Bedi, Venkataraghavan and Chandrasekhar, India had to make the best of this deadly quartet who had flummoxed overseas sides with their art and expertise? Good dividends too had been reaped.
As with the sport of cricket itself where evolvement has been the key to its increased patronage, the playing strategies too have been slowly but surely undergoing transformation. India too developed good talent who earned reputation as pace bowlers. There was a time when Indian pace attack was an apology, a perfunctory act so to say, to take away some polish off the ball. Spin attack would not take long to get introduced and the fun starts there.
The current series has thrown out that belief that Indian spin can do wonders, so to say. The Pune surface was clearly meant for spin-exploitation and what happened, if one were to take the view of an impartial onlooker was that the Indians were outplayed in an area considered to be their strength! When have we last seen a batsman of class, like Virat Kohli for instance, easily one of India's finest cricketer, misread the flight and direction of a spinner's ball and get castled! If Kohli's dismissal was a shocker, then there were others who never seemed ready for the occasion. Suddenly, the hunter had become the hunted.
Scores of reasons were trotted out, not by the team members but observers of various hue. Experts believed it was just a bad day in office, some felt it was one of those days, few thought there was a touch of complacency while at least one reader in a newspaper's letters to editor section expressed that the team had displayed over-confidence. But missing the point was that this Australian side had come with clear intention and preparations that included loads of practice in Dubai to get used to spin-friendly pitches. The ICC has this special facility in the Gulf. The visitors in short had come fully equipped and be it in sharp pace bowling or in showing the wiles of spin, Australians knew what to deliver and expect in return. The surprise seemed reserved for the host. That India went on to lose that Pune Test is now history but will that bring about a fresh resurgence from the Indians, seemed to be the query.
Indeed, losing a Test in a four-match series may not be a big damage yet even if it called for fresh thinking and ideas. Certainly for a side which seemed well settled for greater challenges after all the grand shows prior to the Pune happening, this slip cannot be a reverse but a reminder that the best of intentions (read pitch preparation) can be baulked by a determined opposition. But what should be worrying is that Indian cricket came in for an adverse notice with the ICC seeking an explanation from the BCCI on the poor quality pitch laid out in Pune. Are we then slowly moving towards days of neutral curators?
At least one former Test cricketer of standing, Dilip Vengsarkar thinks so from his reaction to the whole episode. Indeed, looking into the whole gamut of how cricket is conducted these days with neutral umpires, Decision Review System (DRS) and what not in place, to make the contest as fair as possible, it would be prudent to think of neutral curators too. Something to ponder about for cricket administrations the world over.