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Despite losing, India should refrain from preparing rank turners (for their own good)

Last updated on 30 Jan 2024 | 06:22 AM
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Despite losing, India should refrain from preparing rank turners (for their own good)

India’s best bet to win the ongoing series might still be playing on the kind of surface they did in Hyderabad

When India succumbed to one of their most shocking defeats at home on the fourth day of the Hyderabad Test, the words ‘Vizag Curator’ started doing the rounds on Twitter.

Essentially, there were a bunch of tongue-in-cheek Tweets and memes being posted implying that India, in the second Test, will bully the curator into preparing a rank turner because they lost on a traditional Indian wicket in Hyderabad. 

It’s a joke, of course, but if India’s track record is anything to go by, that could unironically end up happening.

Since the pandemic, with World Test Championship (WTC) points at stake, India have not been afraid to go the ‘rank / sharp turner’ route every time they’ve needed a result (match or series win).

In the aftermath of the Australia series last year, team India’s head coach Rahul Dravid himself admitted that a ‘premium on results’ has influenced the kind of surfaces being prepared.

“It (the WTC) could be one of the reasons,” Dravid said, when asked why extreme surfaces were being prepared.

“There is too much premium on results. You draw a game like in Kanpur against New Zealand (in 2021). They [India] took nine wickets in the second innings and you draw the game and it sets you back in a home game. 

“There is tough competition all around, every team is getting results at home. There is a premium on results whether at home or away,” Dravid said.

Having now slipped to fifth on the WTC points table, results are the need of the hour for India, with their five away remaining Tests in the ongoing cycle scheduled in Australia.  

Which means there’ll be an obvious inclination to prepare result-oriented turning wickets for the rest of the England series. Prior evidence suggests these are the kind of wickets India believe gives them the best chance of winning.

This theory might have been validated in the past, particularly in the four-match series against England in 2021, but India’s best bet to win the ongoing series might still be playing on the kind of surface they did in Hyderabad — even though the hosts slipped to defeat on what was a ‘traditional’ Indian wicket.

Here’s why.

Raging turners bridge the gap in skill between Ashwin/Jadeja/Axar & opposition spinners

In Ashwin, Jadeja & Axar, India possess the most potent spin attack in the entire world. Two of these three bowlers are all-time greats, and all three individuals know surfaces in India like the back of their hand, meaning they know exactly where to bowl and what to do to get the better of the batters.

Batters can pack their bags for good on tracks that turn sharply, but these three can get you wickets for fun even on the flattest of surfaces. After all, that is precisely what Ashwin & Jadeja did between 2013 to 2019 where India were impregnable despite playing on some pretty flat, batter-friendly surfaces.

The catch here is that, while Indian spinners will still be effective on batter-friendly tracks, the opposition spinners won’t, often due to not having the same skillset as Indian spinners to thrive on good, true surfaces. 

From the start of 2013 till the end of 2019, in Tests in India, Indian spinners took 419 wickets in 3,618 overs at an average of 22.53. 

In the exact same matches, opposition spinners took just 226 wickets in 2885.2 overs at an average of 46.19.

Essentially, in the ‘true, good batting tracks’ era, India’s spinners proved to be twice as effective as the opposition spinners. And this proved to be a near cheat code for the hosts to stay invincible.

India lose this particular advantage on raging turners, for these wickets tend to bring the opposition spinners into play, giving them the hand they need to compete with India’s spinners.

In the post-pandemic era (since 2020), India have largely played on wickets that turn sharply. 

During this period, opposition spinners have averaged 30.58 as compared to India’s 19.09. The difference is still stark, but the gulf that existed between India’s spinners and opposition spinners between 2013-2019 is now non-existent. And that’s nearly entirely down to the kind of surfaces prepared.

The first Test in Hyderabad itself is proof for the same. When the track was true (in the first innings), India’s spinners averaged 23.6 compared to England’s 38.3. 

To England’s credit, they staged an improbable comeback (and eventually outbowled and outbatted India), but the traditional nature of the surface did initially provide the hosts with an advantage.

Rank turners completely take India’s batters out of the equation

The problem with rank turners is not just the fact that the surfaces end up bridging the gap in skill between India’s spinners and opposition spinners. They also end up taking India’s batters out of the equation.

The last time India prepared a rank turner, against Australia in Indore, they got bowled out for 109 inside 34 overs despite winning the toss and batting. 

In 2021, they beat England by 10 wickets in Ahmedabad, but they got bowled out for 145 in their first innings, with Root taking 5 for 8.

Sure enough, rank turners will ensure Ashwin, Jadeja & Axar run riot, but they will also handicap your own batters. This ends up making the result a lottery where one innings could end up making a difference in the entire Test match (like Khawaja’s 60 did in Indore).

But Indian batting’s frailties (against spin) has been exposed on even normal turning tracks and this should be reason enough for the management to not ask for extreme surfaces.

In both Nagpur (168/5) and Delhi (139/7) against Australia, they had to be bailed out by the lower-order. Such was the collective failure of the batting line-up in Nagpur that, despite a ton from skipper Rohit, India were reeling at 240/7 at one stage. 

The same was the case in the fourth Test against England in Ahmedabad in 2021 (146/6), where Pant (101) and Washington Sundar (96*) batted the side to victory. 

When your own batters are sitting ducks against spin bowling on tricky surfaces, it would not be wise to gamble by preparing extreme turning surfaces.

Bazball will become an even bigger threat on rank turners

Specifically talking about England, this is the exact kind of batting line-up which you don’t want to go up against on a surface that’s a lottery.

None of their batters will die wondering. Every single batter will take their chances and will be willing to manufacture runs from ball one, knowing there will be a ball with their name written on it.

Ollie Pope’s 196 in Hyderabad was a chance-filled knock that had a ridiculous number of false strokes. He could easily have been dismissed under 10. 

But he knew this too, and he took his chances knowing that the upshot of the same would be him playing a game-defining knock. His gamble eventually paid off.

The thing about this particular England line-up is that, in the Top 6, every single batter, starting from Crawley all the way to Stokes, is capable of playing such a ‘once in a lifetime’ knock. 

And that’s the kind of batting line-up you wouldn’t want to be messing around with on a rank turner. Because, ultimately, a ‘chuck it’ approach is the sort of attitude that’s required to succeed on extreme surfaces. That’s why batters like Pant and Head keep playing these improbable knocks over and over again.

England also bat deep, with most of their bowlers capable of not just hanging around and swinging, but stitching big partnerships. 

India know better than any other side the value of lower-order runs on a rank turner (or even a green seamer, for that matter), where the margins tend to be extremely tight. 


So while India came up short on a traditional surface in Hyderabad, their best bet for the remainder of the series might just be sticking to preparing similar surfaces — tracks which bring their batters into play and nullify the England spinners; not tracks that handicap their batters and empower the opposition bowlers.

It is very likely that the Vizag curator would already have gotten a call by now. Let’s hope that he was instructed to prepare a surface similar to Hyderabad; not one completely opposite to it. 

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