India vs Australia 2017

‘Nowadays, whatever India is preparing are akhadas, not pitches’: Ex-Wankhede curator Sudhir Naik

The attitude has changed from 20 years ago when there used to be only sporting wickets prepared in the country for Test matches, the 72-year-old said.

If you were to create a word cloud about the ongoing four-Test series between India and Australia, “pitch” will definitely be the biggest word in there. Pitches being the centre of attention is not new to Indian cricket, but the ongoing series has seen that scrutiny go through the roof. The International Cricket Council rated the surfaces in Pune and Bengaluru, which hosted the first two Tests, as “poor” and “below average” respectively, providing further fodder to the media.

As the circus moved to Ranchi for the third Test, the media, the Australian in particular, have all their mics and cameras pointed towards the strip, or three, in the middle of the ground. One Australian newspaper has already gone ahead and seemingly twisted Ranchi curator SB Singh’s words into making its readers believe that India had the chance to handpick one pitch out of the three to choose from.

Curating a Test match pitch in India is not the most envious job in the world right now. Former India player Sudhir Naik knows all about it, having curated the pitch at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium for nearly three decades. Naik played three Tests and two One-Day Internationals for India, and led Mumbai to the Ranji Trophy title in 1970-’71. He is also a renowned coach, with former India bowler Zaheer Khan being one of his protégés. However, it was his job as curator at Wankhede that gained Naik the most headlines.

Last June, Naik quit his post as the pitch consultant at Wankhede after first being put in charge following the 1987 World Cup. His last international match in charge was a one-dayer between India and South Africa in October 2015, when former India team director Ravi Shastri reportedly abused him for preparing a batting-friendly wicket with no assistance for spinners in what was a series-deciding game. India lost that match by 214 runs after South Africa posted 438 on the board batting first.

Naik would know what Singh and the other curators in this series have gone through. What he also knows very well is the science behind curating a cricket pitch. Naik has an MSc in Organic Chemistry from Mumbai University. With all the focus being on the pitch, perhaps this is a good time to try and figure out what exactly goes into preparing a Test match wicket. We see words like “rank turner”, “black and red soil”, “spitting cobras”, or “moisture in the pitch” being tossed around all the time. But what do these terms really mean?

Scroll.in spoke to Naik ahead of the third Test and picked his brain about the technical aspect of curating a pitch. Naik, 72, was quite candid, not just about the science, but also about the politics behind pitch curation in India.

Excerpts from the interview:

How does the type or colour of the soil make a difference in curating a pitch? Ranchi is supposed to have black soil, while Mumbai has red. How will a rank turner in Ranchi play differently from one in Mumbai?

Everywhere, local soil is different. The behaviour will be different depending on where you are in the world as far as bounce, turn and pace of the ball is concerned. In Australia, they have black soil all over and the wickets are fast, whereas in India, black-soil wickets are not fast. They are slow and the bounce is also less.

Black soil comes from various mountains or surfaces. In India, black soil comes from the river base and also from khets, fields. They have different characteristics. But all black soils in India are slow and low. The binding is also not very good. Some places have good binding, but not good bounce. On red soil, you get good bounce.

India coach Anil Kumble inspects the pitch in Ranchi ahead of the third Test against Australia (PTI)
India coach Anil Kumble inspects the pitch in Ranchi ahead of the third Test against Australia (PTI)

There are other factors involved as well – you must know the correct technique to prepare wickets. How to water it, how much water to use depending on the temperature, when to roll... That plays a very important role. These days, you call anybody a curator, but everybody is not a curator. Because in England, Australia and New Zealand, they call them curators, so now we have started calling them curators.

Curator means you should have knowledge of the characteristics of the soil, how to analyse it, you must understand what it needs, the chemicals that you use, the fertilizers, you should know when to use them. You just can’t put fertilizers as and when you want. Arey, iske upar fertilizer daal de. Aisa nahi hota hai. (Hey, just put the fertilizer on it. It doesn’t work like that.) When to put the fertilizer is also important. After putting the fertilizer, how much water do you use? You should not overdose it. If you overdose, the fertilizer will become more diluted and go inside the soil.

Chemical processes are involved. Curators must have a chemistry background or be a horticulturist. But then horticulturists must also know how to roll on which soil. Basically, experience and educational background will help you to prepare good wickets.

How does rolling help in preparing wickets? What is the difference between using a heavy roller and a light roller?

For that, first, you need to understand how and when to water a pitch. Normally, it is always better to water [the pitch] in the evening. Do not water it during the daytime. Humans have definite timings for eating food. If you eat at regular times for years together, it helps your body. But if you eat at noon one day and at 3 pm the next day, that is not good for your body.

Similarly, if you water in the morning or afternoon it is not good for the grass. It is advisable to water in the evening. I read in the paper that just before the Indian team came to the ground [in Ranchi for practice on Tuesday], the groundsman had watered the pitch. That means he has watered it in the morning, which is very bad for the wicket.

'It is always better to water the pitch in the evening.' (AFP)
'It is always better to water the pitch in the evening.' (AFP)

Rolling is done normally during the day time. You have to see how much water is there in the soil. Depending on the consistency of the soil, you have to use a heavy or a light roller. If you use too much of a heavy roller, the grass dies. You can use a heavy roller initially and then, ultimately, in the last three or four days [before the Test], you have to prepare the wicket with a light roller only. You have to retain the moisture.

When you use the heavy roller, soil gets spread so much that the water comes up from the side and evaporates in the sun. Then, there is no moisture [in the soil]. If you use a heavy roller all the time, your grass becomes yellow, which means there is no moisture. The grass dies. That is why you have to use a light roller. That will give you life in the wicket. The wicket will become fast. If moisture is there, there will be movement and the ball can swing. Whoever understands these technical things can prepare a better wicket.

More grass on the wicket is equated with more seam movement. What is the science behind this?

If grass is there on the pitch, it should be green grass. There has to be moisture. When the ball pitches on the grass, it moves much faster and smoother off the pitch. If the grass is not there, when the ball pitches, there is resistance from the soil. So the speed reduces. If the grass is there, the speed of the ball does not reduce [after pitching] and continues with whatever speed the bowler has bowled.

If moisture is there in the surface and five or six feet above the surface, that moisture will help swing the ball. That is why you should use more water and keep the wicket green. It helps the pace bowlers initially. As the game progresses, all the moisture in the ground evaporates. From the third day onward, it becomes a dry wicket and does not swing more. Then it starts cracking and helping the spinners. That is the ideal cricket pitch, where everybody gets a chance to exploit the wicket.

At the same time, the batsman can also play shots if there is even bounce, because he knows that the bounce will only be knee-high, or stump-high. Accordingly, after half an hour of batting, he gets an idea and then he can play his shots. So you enjoy the batting also.

Now, if you prepare a pitch like Bengaluru, you cannot enjoy batting because the batsman is struggling all the time. He doesn’t know whether the next delivery will go knee-high, boot-high, elbow-high. Some deliveries will come up right up to your chest and some will not rise above your shoes. If the batsman is not certain, he will not play any shots because he gets only a fraction of a second [to react] after pitching. So he is defensive all the time and then you don’t enjoy batting.

By preparing back-to-back turning wickets, it shows India don't have confidence in themselves, said Naik (AFP)
By preparing back-to-back turning wickets, it shows India don't have confidence in themselves, said Naik (AFP)

On this [Bengaluru] wicket, you could not see Virat Kohli playing his shots. If normal wickets had been there, in these two Tests, he would have scored at least one hundred. Such wickets should not be prepared. It is detrimental for cricket. I don’t know what is going on in the Indian team’s mind because they are the best in the world. They have got a very good batting line-up, they have got good bowlers – pace and spin.

If you prepare a normal cricket pitch, everybody will perform and they will win the game. But I don’t know what is going on here – turning wicket and turning wicket. That means we don’t have confidence in ourselves. We only feel that we can get these foreigners out if we prepare a turning track because they cannot play well on it. It’s awful, but anyway.

Yes, the wickets did look better earlier in the home season…

No, against England also the wickets were bad. Right from the South Africa series [in December 2015], then against New Zealand too, all wickets were bad. Only thing was that the opposition did not have good spinners, so there was no fight between India and those teams. And here, Australia have got equally good spinners, so India is also struggling. Both teams are fighting against each other. It’s become a good fight. But against England and New Zealand, there wasn’t a single good spinner in the opposition, all were ordinary. So they could not exploit these wickets.

How does the ball know the difference between live grass and dead grass?

In dead grass, there is no moisture. If there is no moisture in the air around the wicket, the ball will not swing. On the dead grass, resistance is created and the ball travels a bit slower. On green grass, the resistance is not there so ball swings and at the same time the speed is maintained.

Is there a difference in method between preparing wickets in the Indian summer versus doing so in the winter?

Naturally, in the summer, more moisture evaporates off the pitch during the daytime. Five days prior to the start of the match, you have to maintain a certain level of moisture beneath the pitch. There has to be moisture up to three or four feet beneath the pitch. That moisture is sucked by the roots of the grass and it maintains the binding of the ground. But in winter, you have to water less because evaporation is less. If you don’t maintain that water level on the ground during summer, it will become a very dry wicket and start turning much earlier.

How long before a Test match do curators start preparing the pitch?

It depends on the type of the pitch. If your grassroots are good and well grown, then you can prepare a Test match pitch within four or five days also. But if grassroots are not good, you will take 10 or 12 days. On average, it takes around seven or eight days to prepare a wicket.

'On average, it takes around seven or eight days to prepare a wicket' (AFP)
'On average, it takes around seven or eight days to prepare a wicket' (AFP)

Why are surfaces re-laid and how does it make a difference? The Kolkata Test against New Zealand had a re-laid surface that supported the pacers. The Bengaluru surface against Australia was also re-laid and played quite differently from how it used to. Why does this happen?

When you are using a particular plot for many years, the properties of the soil change. [Old soil] doesn’t give life to the grass. It is better that you remove the old soil and put fresh soil, fresh grass on it. That will give better life to the pitch and the ball can swing, bounce better.

But relaying is not so easy. I’ve seen so many pitches that, two years after relaying, they don’t get good bounce. [This happens] because they don’t know how to roll, etc. There are some experts who can do it well, but a majority of the curators I’ve seen [in India] have taken a long time to get a good bounce after relaying. These days, by reading a lot of theories on Google, people have learnt a lot. But you must have practical experience also.

After how many years is it advisable to relay the surface?

It is better to relay a pitch after every eight or 10 years.

Has the nature of Indian pitches changed in the last two decades? Did the pitches spin more earlier? Or less? What has been the difference and why so?

The characteristics of the soil all over the world have changed because the earth is getting warmer and warmer. But at the same time, 20 years back and before that, we never used to prepare wickets that will suit our spinners. Remove the grass completely, make it bald and dry so that the ball turns from the first over – never. Earlier, normal pitches were prepared. On those kinds of wickets, it is ideal to play cricket.

What Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkataraghanvan, Bishen Bedi and all other spinners all over India have done in those days is really creditable – they have only played on cricket pitches, not on akhadas. Nowadays, whatever we are preparing, especially in the last four or five years, are all akhadas. Not cricket pitches. On such pitches, if spinners get so many wickets and statistically they are better than this fellow and that fellow, that is all hogwash. It’s not done.

The soil has changed a bit, but that can be adjusted. What has changed is our attitude – we don’t have confidence that our batsmen can face their pace bowlers, we feel that they cannot perform against our spinners, they will not score more runs and we can find a way to win. The attitude has changed – that is the only difference.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.