Johannesburg: The first Test matches I covered as a reporter also happened to be two of the greatest games of all time. Kolkata 2001 needs no description. Everything about it speaks for itself. But if you ask me, Chennai the following week was every bit as good. Until Steve Waugh bizarrely handled the ball with the score 340 for 3, Australia were running away with the Test.
Even with Harbhajan Singh taking 15 wickets, it went right to the wire, with Jason Gillespie’s final day spells in the searing Chennai heat – you could have cooked a steak on the old concrete steps at Chepauk – as good as anything we’ve seen on Indian soil. The surfaces the two Tests were played on were normal Indian pitches, great for batting over the first three days, with deterioration bringing the spinners into play on days four and five. They were part of the narrative, but they weren’t the story.
Contrast that to last year’s home series against Australia. Starting with the moon-landing surface in Pune, the pitches got as much attention as the performances. In the Australian papers, these blocks of clay, mud and grass got nearly as much coverage as a certain world leader’s foot-in-mouth disease.
Pune was atrocious, Bangalore not that much better. Ranchi was deathly dull, and Dharamsala, while exciting, far from what you’d usually expect in India. In short, not one of the surfaces was anything like the ones India and Australia had played on 16 years earlier, in the greatest three-Test series in history.
And it’s not just India either. Think back to the most celebrated series of all – the 2005 Ashes. There was spice in the Lord’s pitch for the first Test, but it never tipped over to spitting-cobra territory as this Wanderers surface has done. Whether it was Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford or The Oval, there was something for everyone. Memorable centuries were made, Shane Warne took 40 wickets and England’s pace quartet harvested 75 between them. If it’s recalled with misty-eyed fondness even now, it’s because the balance between bat and ball was seldom lost.
How much balance have we seen in this series, and especially at The Wanderers? Just think of the knock AB de Villiers played in South Africa’s first innings. This, remember, is a man who has been one of the world’s finest batsmen for a decade. He’s also someone in prime form, as he showed in testing conditions in Cape Town and Centurion. Yet, in 19 balls at the Bullring, he should have been out leg before once, got struck on the gloves and was then bowled by a ball that shaped in like a boomerang.
Instead of the world’s best all-format batsman, he looked like a struggling tail-ender. Had that solely been because of the bowler’s skill – think Glenn McGrath putting Kevin Pietersen through the wringer – then it would have been acceptable. But here, the pitch had everything to do with de Villiers’ 33-minute struggle.
I also can’t be the only one who finds the whining about pitches even more pathetic than the formulaic platitudes trotted out at press conferences. Go through the transcripts of the five days at Centurion – Each day had a lengthy whinge about the ‘subcontinental’ pitch –and you wouldn’t imagine that South Africa had won by 135 runs.
So petulant have players become that it’s no surprise that we’ve arrived at the farce that is this Test match. The pressure on ground staff is intense, with coaches and players missing no opportunity to let them know their ‘order’. And if the menu gets changed – often, it can because of the vagaries of the weather – the toys are hurled out of the pram and dummies spat out.
The only circumstances in which player rants should be tolerated is when you have surfaces that have nothing for any type of bowler, because then we might as well watch batsman against carefully calibrated bowling machines. Pitches like the ones in Ahmedabad (vs Sri Lanka, 2009) and Perth (vs New Zealand, 2015) should first be dynamited, and the venue then banned for a season.
Years ago, when you went to a venue, you knew what to expect. Adelaide, like most Asian pitches, would be excellent for batting over the first three days, and then gradually favour the bowlers. The same was true of Sydney, and The Oval. These days, with drop-in pitches and curators messing around so much because of the pressures brought to bear on them, you often have no clue what lies in wait.
If the trend of home boards loading the decks in their favour doesn’t stop, the ICC needs to step in and form a central authority that will supervise pitch preparation for every series. As with the two greatest series we’ve witnessed, the pitch should only ever be part of the backdrop. Once it takes centre stage, then you’re one small step away from absurdity. That’s been apparent from day one of this engrossing but ultimately flawed game.