It was supposed to last no more than three days. In the end, it lasted all five. The Ranchi pitch, which hosted the third Test of the India-Australia series, was abused, then praised, and then abused again. If this India-Australia series were made into a movie, the pitch would be the protagonist and the antagonist. But what we have realised at the end of three Test matches is that there’s no pleasing anyone when it comes to the hallowed 22 yards, at least in India.
After the Pune and Bengaluru pitches were rated “poor” and “below average” respectively, the media, the Australian in particular, was quick to scrutinise the Ranchi track before the third Test started. However, many pitch experts were forced to change their verdict as the match progressed.
Here is how the media, the experts and the cricketers themselves reacted to the pitch before, during and after the match:
Before the match
Australia captain Steve Smith seemed gobsmacked by what he saw in the middle of the ground a day before the Ranchi Test started. “I’ve never seen a wicket that’s looked quite as dark as that one is,” Smith told the Cricket Australia website. “It looks like there’s mud sort of rolled together... It’s 22 yards and we’ve played on some difficult wickets in the first two games and we’ve played some pretty good cricket, so we’re confident that we can play with whatever this wicket does.”
The Australian published a story titled “Pat Cummins likely to play on dead Ranchi pitch”. Peter Lalor, an Australian cricket journalist, wrote in the report, “The patchy surface seems designed to confound left-handers at either end, of which the Australian top order has many. None of the visitors seemed pleased with what they saw.”
The Daily Telegraph went a gear higher, publishing a report titled, “Indian pitch doctors take their craft to a new low in Ranchi”. Australia should prepare themselves for “the dodgiest deck of the series so far”, wrote Ben Horne, adding that “pitch doctoring has now gone to another level and the reputation and integrity of Indian cricket is on the brink of complete embarrassment”.
“The match pitch looked as though it had been played on, with what appeared like footmarks already present...if early impressions of this devilish pitch come to fruition, it could be argued India has done nothing to adhere to the ICC’s demands for both teams to play in the spirit of the game,” the report said.
The same journalist had earlier reported that Ranchi curator SB Singh had prepared three different pitches for the Indian team to choose from. Singh “did nothing to cover up the level of pitch doctoring when he confirmed to Australian media yesterday that the BCCI is indeed responsible for making the final call”, Horne wrote. Singh would deny any such claims. “If I can simulate all those conditions in one square here, I should be a genius,” he told the Indian Express.
They weren’t alone.
The Indian media was a bit more reserved in its analysis and most outlets did not pass a verdict. “Since it’s the first Test at this venue, you can’t glean out patterns on pitch behaviour over the next five days,” wrote Sandip G in the Indian Express. “Looking from close quarters, the pitch was not full of cracks as feared by the Australians,” wrote G Krishnan in DNA. “Though there was grass on it, it was dry, perhaps more to bind the surface.”
There were some, though, who did appear to reach a conclusion based on what they saw.
The Deccan Chronicle wrote, “Going by the pictures doing the rounds on social media, the Ranchi pitch looks heavily designed to assist spinners, with dark patches across the pitch.”
And so, as we reached the morning of the Test, no one knew what to expect, with the Indian and Australian media contradicting each other.
Former Australia leg-spinner gave his verdict as the covers were lifted, even though he was nowhere near Ranchi.
However, as Australia batted through the day rather comfortably, reaching 299/4 at stumps, the experts who had condemned the pitch had to eat their words.
“This one has actually played a lot better than I thought it would,” said Smith after the day’s play. “The consistency of bounce has been there generally throughout the whole day. It hasn’t really spun so it’s a nice wicket to bat on and we’re going to need as many as we can get in this first innings.”
As we entered day two, the pitch continued to hold on. Smith and Glenn Maxwell cracked centuries to take Australia to 451, before India reached stumps at a comfortable 120/1.
There were more retractions as we entered day three.
But as Cheteshwar Pujara became the first Indian centurion of the series and India approached Australia’s total, some doubts started creeping in.
On day four, nobody knew what to expect.
Pujara and Wriddhiman Saha entered grind mode and slowly piled on the runs for India. The hosts finally declared at 603/9 after Pujara scored a double century, Saha hit a ton and Ravindra Jadeja reached his fifty. The pitch was still flat as a highway.
But as Australia lost two wickets in the eight overs they were forced to bat before stumps to Jadeja’s spin, there were some predictions that the pitch would crumble on the final day.
But crumble it did not. “Nest of vipers” it never became. Australia managed to bat out a draw as the Indian bowlers toiled. And soon, the debate switched to whether this pitch was good or not.
There were some who asked whether a track where 25 wickets fell in five days could be considered a good pitch.
The verdict was again divided, with all eyes now on what the ICC rates it.
Some decided to dismiss whatever the ICC says.
Reputations were on the line, as well.
India captain Virat Kohli, tossed a googly in the post-match press conference, saying that it wasn’t the pitch, but the quality of the balls used that surprised his team. “We were not disappointed with the pitch,” he said. “The pitch broke down like it does in all games and deteriorated on day two, three and four like it should.”
Kohli said that the ball’s hardness was an issue. “The ball was spinning yesterday and we could generate that pace. But in the middle part of the innings we could not generate as much pace, but we don’t want to take any credit away from their batsmen. They batted really well.”
What then to make of this pitch? Pune was “poor” because it spun too much and the match lasted less than three days. Bengaluru was “below average” because there was uneven turn and bounce, even though it produced a cracker of a Test match that went into the fourth day. Ranchi confounded everyone by holding through for five days, but the match ended in a draw after just 25 wickets fell.
Regardless of what the ICC rates it, what the traditional and social media can learn from this series so far is that not even the cricketers can predict how a pitch will pan out. So why bother trying to read too much into it? As the tour moves to Dharamsala for the deciding Test of what has been a thrilling series currently locked at 1-1, it would augur well if the media just reported what they see without giving a verdict, ask the curator how he thinks the pitch will play out, and sit back and enjoy the cricket.