Kanpur Test Pitch Report: Wicket expected to help spin, but not unplayable

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Preparations at Green Park Stadium ahead of the first Test between India and New Zealand, in Kanpur. (PTI)

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Shared News: November 25, 2021 9:07:38 am
Green Park’s reputation of offering dustbowls is exaggerated, but it will provide slow turn and variable bounce as the game progresses.

Beside the sightscreen, a wiry young groundsman asked his colleague, “Tarpal abhi lagana ya nahin?(should we put up the cover?)” The mildly-irritated fellow groundsman, probably his immediate senior, snapped: “Abhi kapda nahin chahiye, nanga rahne do, thoda roshni aur hawa ko aane do. (Not now, leave it exposed, let in some light and air)”

The 22-yard strip, always the focal point on match eve and an object of scrutiny, had slept wrapped in a green blanket of tarpaulin on Tuesday. But the next day, it lay naked, its light-brown crust basking in the sunlight. Only when the sun sets and the smog settles in would it be reclothed. It’s a practice in this neck of the woods to expose the ground to sunshine on the eve of a match to suck moisture out of it. As Kanpur has been cooler than it usually is in November, the probability of the pitch retaining some moisture is high, and it would take more time to deteriorate. They don’t want the pitch to throw up cracks prematurely either, by exposing it to too much sun either. So, they cover the pitch in the days leading up to the match once they have prepared it.

Curious passers-by would stop and casually ask the groundsmen, “Pitch kaisa hain bhai (what’s the pitch like?)” “Kanpur jaisa (like it is in Kanpur),” they would shoot back. Kanpur jaisa means, the pitch would take slow turn as the game progresses, and depending on the sun and smog, it would crack up, off-shooting in variable bounce. The image of Kanpur as a diabolical dustbowl is a misnomer though. Apart from the stinker against South Africa in 2008 — the story goes that after the match, captain Anil Kumble took the curator’s panama cap as a souvenir — most of the other decks it had subsequently produced were not rank turners. In the next Test, India piled on 642 runs against a Sri Lanka side that featured the triumvirate of Muttiah Muralitharan, Rangana Herath and Ajantha Mendis. Even the man of the match was not a spinner but a seamer, S Sreesanth. In the next Test here, against New Zealand, the match lasted four and a half days. At some point in the game, the pitch would indeed take turn, but not unplayable, cynical turn.

But some reputations stick, exaggerated no less by the turners that greeted England at the start of this year. The reputation that precedes Kanpur seemed to have spooked the New Zealanders too. Whenever they stared at the pitch, their faces seemed to turn red, as if they foresaw their spin-induced doom. Captain Kane Williamson would tilt his head dismayingly whenever he’s asked something about the pitch. Coach Gary Stead would often snigger, and admitted that they are deliberating on playing three spinners, in a high-risk tit-for-tat move. “The traditional way of playing four seamers and one part-time spinner can’t be the way to go over here. You may see three spinners playing in this game and that will be decided once we have a look at the surface,” Stead said.

Out of comfort zone

The despondency that his face wore after he saw the pitch suggested that he is risk-averse to embrace a gamble that few other coaches of non-subcontinental teams had the courage to. More so in New Zealand’s case, as seam bowling is their biggest strength, and three spinners would mean choosing between their well-drilled three-man pace strike-force of Neil Wagner, Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson.

Should they resort to the extreme step, it would be off-spinner Will Somerville and left-arm spinners Ajaz Patel and Mitchell Santner, who is a canny batsman too. Santner could be redundant in a sense, as both Somerville and Patel are extremely resourceful. Somerville, with his six-foot-four frame, is unlike any other spinner India has encountered in recent times. His height, and reliance on over-spin, would be a handful if variable bounce kicks in, as it’s expected.

Ajaz is a different proposition, a left-arm spinner relying on orthodox tools, with a neat arm-ball. He has prospered in Asia, with five-fors in Galle and Abu Dhabi. So, he is not someone to be scoffed at. Santner, at his best, is a tie-an-end-up bowler. But the Kiwis’ biggest dilemma would be: which of their seamers to bench. Southee, with his experience and virtuosity, is undroppable. So too is Wagner, whose tirelessness and perseverance, beside the angles he could conjure, would be priceless. But Jamieson has been prolific in his three Test outings against India.

Reducing a batsman would be grossly unwise too, as it would make their batting, already weakened by the absence of Devon Conway, thinner. Moreover, New Zealand’s success in the tour would depend as much as on their spinners’ ability to harness spin as their batsmen’s dint in negotiating it. They seem much more proficient and equipped in dealing with spinners than the Englishmen who stood stupefied once the pitch began to take turn, Joe Root apart. The nucleus of their batting — Williamson, Ross Taylor, Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls — has adequately experienced Asian conditions as well. So either way, unless the pitch possesses a devilish streak, the contest would not be as lopsided as the England one.