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India vs England, 4th Test: Ranchi surface tension adds another layer to gruelling series

On an odd looking Ranchi pitch, India aim to win series with their most inexperienced eleven so far.

“It will turn, but how much and from when we are not sure,” Vikram Rathour revealed something, and yet nothing. There is a science to pitch reading which many don’t get, while some do better than others. Rahul Dravid is one of them. Among the players, Ravichandran Ashwin is another. So, when they take turns to inspect a pitch long and hard, you get a feeling something must be bothering them.

England’sBrendon McCullum, second left inspects the pitch during a practice session (AP)

It must be bothering England too. And that is why despite claiming to play a brand of cricket that takes the pitch out of the equation, captain Ben Stokes, coach Brendon McCullum, chief selector Luke Wright and assistant coach Paul Collingwood were all poring over the pitch, feeling it and even taking pictures of what could only be assumed as the areas that may have raised some concern.

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This is an Indian pitch alright, and a track typical of these parts too, with a smattering of dead grass, some areas drier than the rest but with an appearance that could set alarm bells ringing.

“There are cracks, this wicket always had cracks,” Rathour, India’s batting coach, said on Thursday. What may have spooked the visitors even more was how one half of the entire length of the pitch looked bald while the other half had an uneven cover of dry grass with cracks.

On Wednesday, Stokes had told the British media he had “never seen something like that before. I don’t know what could happen.”

Over 12 hours later, he said his “overall thinking and understanding” of the pitch hadn’t changed but he was still keeping an open mind.

“We get asked about the pitch and we give our opinion, but that doesn’t mean we are going in with too many preconceived ideas,” Stokes said. “The pitch could be as flat as a pancake, who knows? If it is, we will adapt to that. If it does more than we think it will, we will adapt to that as well. We won’t let those conversations seep into what we do.”

Three Tests into this series, for the first time has the conversation revolved so much around the pitch. But appearances can sometimes be misleading.

In 2016-17, against Australia, the pitch at Ranchi looked dark but it allowed Australia to draw a high-scoring match. Three years later, on a not too dissimilar pitch, India declared on 497/9 before bowling out South Africa for 162 and 133, with Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav sharing 10 wickets. Since India neither have Shami nor Jasprit Bumrah this time, all this pitch talk is predictably feeding an age-old frenzy that India are finally preparing a turner.

Thing is, selective watering and rolling of the pitch has been a pretty standard practice. And if it benefits India, England too shouldn’t feel shortchanged. Which is probably why they have gone for a double change—bringing in tall off-spinner Shoaib Bashir in place of Rehan Ahmed and fast bowler Ollie Robinson for Mark Wood. Both are above six feet tall, and that would matter on a pitch where the bounce can be inconsistent. So a rank turner doesn’t exactly help India at this juncture of the tour when they would like to travel to Dharamsala with an unassailable lead.

Especially when after resting Bumrah, India are set to field an eleven that has only three players—Rohit Sharma, Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja—to have played 30 or more Tests. That means it leaves an even lesser margin of error for the younger players who have done remarkably well despite their inexperience.

Yashasvi Jaiswal has two double hundreds to his name, Shubman Gill hasn’t been fluent but still made big contributions, as did Sarfaraz Khan who provided some much-needed muscle flexing to India’s second innings at Rajkot. Even wicketkeeper Dhruv Jurel, who made his debut in Rajkot alongside Khan, scored 46 when India needed a partnership.

“There is always belief that our domestic cricket is so strong, you are pretty assured that whoever comes has come through after doing good and are good players,” said Rathour. “I understand it is tough to miss key players, it’s better for the team if everyone is available. But a series like this which you are playing at home is a good opportunity for the young players, who have played on these wickets to establish themselves. They have cricket intelligence in them, which is again a great sign. It’s a great message, coming from Indian domestic cricket, that the new players are cricket smart. That’s good to see.”

The big selection question for India is who will share the new ball with Mohammad Siraj if India go with two pacers. Mukesh Kumar can reverse the ball but he didn’t have a great outing in Visakhapatnam. Akash Deep, on the other hand, hits the deck harder, something India’s team management tends to like more.

Spinners are expected to do bulk of the wicket-taking though, with Ashwin spearheading that department and Kuldeep Yadav providing the flair with his left-arm wrist spin. But a lot will again ride on Jadeja who keeps pushing the limits of his allround skills at home.

“He keeps everything very simple. There is no complication,” said Rathour. “He’s not overthinking, he’s not overanalysing anything. He just does what the team requires at that stage. And that goes for his bowling and batting both. That is a great asset.”


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