Below the West Stand of the MCA Stadium in Pune are two cavernous rooms accessed via the same staircase. One is the press-conference room. To get there, you have to pass the other room, which is usually locked shut. You can’t see what’s inside, but you can smell it. Dogs. Some twenty guard dogs, employed by the Maharashtra Cricket Association to assist the stadium security staff.
Test cricket is supposed to feel, and perhaps even smell, like 11 Rottweilers tearing into a piece of steak sitting four feet from the stumps. At its fiercest, this intensity should communicate itself to the spectators.
For the best part of the first two days of the Pune Test, the cricket didn’t feel like that. And then, an hour from stumps on day two, someone went and let the guard dogs out.
“Look, if I could speak on the pitch itself, it was quite similar to what you would get back home in South Africa. I honestly felt that it was quite suited to our strength as a bowling unit”
This was a pitch with a healthy tinge of green in it. For the first time since the Kolkata Test of 2017, India were playing three fast bowlers. The pitch for that Test was made to order, to help India prepare for the tours of South Africa, England and Australia that lay ahead. India probably didn’t request this one in Pune – they surely weren’t going to try that when the series was still alive, and not against South Africa’s fast bowlers. In any case, it wasn’t a green top in quite the same way. It was far better to bat on, and in his pitch report, Sunil Gavaskar suggested the grass was only there to help bind the soil and prevent it from breaking up too early.
South Africa’s quicks had first use of the pitch, and though there was enough seam and bounce to keep them interested for at least the first half of the first day, they didn’t worry the batsmen unduly. Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje ended up with combined figures of 81-14-259-3 as India ran away to 601 for 5 declared.
In a similar situation at any point before, say, 2016, India fans might have told themselves that it was now up to the spinners. “If Philander, Rabada and a new guy bowling 147kph can’t get anything out of this surface, what can our lot do?”
With this current lot of India pacers, though, you would wait and watch before pronouncing judgment on the pitch.
You didn’t have to wait too long, because South Africa were 53 for 5 before they knew it. Umesh Yadav took three of those wickets, Mohammed Shami two.
Temba Bavuma, one of the batsmen swept away by that irresistible tide, couldn’t quite put a finger on what India’s quicks did differently to South Africa’s, but he admitted that there had been a difference.
“Look, if I could speak on the pitch itself, it was quite similar to what you would get back home in South Africa,” Temba Bavuma said at the end of the third day’s play. “I honestly felt that it was quite suited to our strength as a bowling unit.
“Probably being hypercritical, you would have expected our bowling attack, looking at the skill that we have, to have been able to make a lot more inroads, looking at the conditions.
“Their bowlers have been able to put us under pressure. It’s quite obvious in the batting totals that we’ve been able to accumulate. They’re obviously doing something that we are not doing, or their batters are just playing the bowlers better than our batters. But yeah, I think their bowlers have really hit their straps at this point in time.”
What was that something that Umesh and Shami did that Philander, Rabada and Nortje did not? The numbers suggest India’s lengths were perhaps better suited to the conditions than South Africa’s. Both sets of fast bowlers bowled a similar percentage of good-length deliveries, according to ESPNcricinfo’s data, but the percentages either side of the good length told a story. South Africa erred on the shorter side of good, India on the fuller side.
But it was about more than that. Fast bowling is about discipline and good areas and chipping away at the batsman’s technique, but at its very best, it’s about all those things at a heightened intensity. It’s about unleashing the inner Rottweiler.
There was, quite palpably, a hit-the-pitch, at-the-batsman hostility about India’s fast bowling, particularly with the new and new-ish ball. Rabada and Nortje lack nothing for pace compared to Umesh and Shami, but in this Test match they did not seem to hound the batsmen quite as much, or quite as well.
“Test cricket is supposed to feel, and perhaps even smell, like 11 Rottweilers tearing into a piece of steak sitting four feet from the stumps”
When he chopped on off Umesh, Dean Elgar wasn’t just unsure of whether to play or leave. He was rushed into judgment, or non-judgment, by the slippery pace at which the ball swerved back at him after angling across, and the way it sprang off the surface.
Bavuma didn’t nick the ball. The ball nicked his edge. It spat at his edge, and clawed at it. That overstretched canine metaphor again, but this really was fast bowling of snarl and spittle, bark and bite. Virat Kohli had said before this game that Shami is capable of getting more out of Indian pitches than any other fast bowler he has seen. This was evidence of that.
“Last evening, I thought the way Shami and Umesh handled it was extremely special,” R Ashwin said. “The way Shami was getting the ball to carry to the keeper, it was a pleasant sight to see. It doesn’t happen often in India, but this seam attack of ours has completely earned the right to do such things and we aren’t surprised by it anymore.”
Shami’s carry was unusual for an Indian pitch, with Wriddhiman Saha often collecting the ball over his shoulder. Shami wasn’t attacking the stumps here, as he likes to do, and looking to skid the ball through. He instead had three slips and a gully and was looking to climb into the shoulder of the bat.
At one point early on day three, Shami had four slips, a gully and a short leg breathing down the neck of Nortje, the nightwatchman. The only other fielders were fine leg, mid-on and mid-off. You only set these fields if you can make them work, and Shami produced another snorter in the fourth-stump channel, climbing at the shoulder of Nortje’s bat. His response wasn’t too different to what a top-order batsman may have offered, and Kohli sent him on his way with a low catch to his right at fourth slip.
This was by no means a seaming monster of a pitch; it was utterly docile compared to the ones South Africa rolled out when India came visiting last year. As had been the case when India batted, there was much less help for the bowlers once the ball lost its hardness and shine. It became easy enough to bat on for South Africa’s ninth-wicket pair to hang around for 259 balls.
India must have expected the pitch to play the way it did. The intensity that Umesh and Shami brought to their bowling was perhaps in recognition of this. They knew they would have to make the most of conditions when they were still helpful. They needed to seize a fleeting moment, and they did just that.
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