HAVING SEEN their venue’s reputation get tarnished on the special occasion of hosting their first-ever Test match, local authorities in Pune have pointed at external interference for the dust bowl that saw Australia crush India within three days. They have claimed that the Indian team management and a section of the Board of Control for Cricket in India “hijacked the Pune pitch” and forced them to change its nature. To the extent that even the two senior members of the BCCI pitches committee, Daljit Singh and Dhiraj Parsana who were present at the MCA Stadium, had their hands tied and were initially reluctant to abide by the team’s demands. While a turning track is what was demanded, it turns out that a lack of knowledge from those interfering about local conditions, and coercion to toe the team’s line, resulted in a pitch that was nothing short of diabolical.
According to a Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA) member, there’d been pressure on them from a senior member of the team management to prepare a “rank turner” from over a week before the Test. And despite being informed that the Pune pitch would turn “spiteful” if left bereft of grass, they insisted on having a “bald” pitch. The result was a pitch that saw a relatively unknown left-arm spinner rummage through India with a 12-wicket haul. Local officials believe it could also find a mention in match referee Chris Broad’s report to the ICC, especially since the practice wickets weren’t like the match pitch despite being prepared simultaneously, which would mean that the one used for the Test was tampered with later.
“When the MCA refused to prepare a rank turner, the senior member of the team management took the issue to the state association curator Pandurang Salgaoncar. When he too resisted, the matter was placed before the BCCI curators (Parsana and Daljit), but even they were a tad reluctant. Then, the BCCI management (not the Committee of Administrators, the cricket board employees) came into the picture. The ground staff had been ordered to remove the grass completely. Things were hijacked from the local curators,” the MCA member says.
The parched Pune wicket seemed to have finally received some much-needed moisture on Sunday afternoon. Sources on the ground reveal that the local groundsmen were ordered to reduce the watering on the pitch drastically so that it didn’t receive even half of the moisture it generally does. This was done nearly four days before the first day of the match. They were also made to use metallic brushes to scuff up the surface and remove any kind of grass covering that was on the pitch two days earlier. And it wasn’t surprising to see the Australians vocally question the nature of the pitch on the eve of the match considering the evident scuff marks. No one among the ground staff is prepared to come on record, but they do admit the outside hand in the way the pitch behaved.
Local curator Salgaoncar, who had famously declared that his pitch would fly two days prior to the match, is learnt to have been quite upset with the way the pitch played out. He didn’t show up at the MCA Stadium on Sunday and despite repeated attempts, wasn’t available for comment. Salgaoncar had been quoted in the media on Sunday for having asked the reporters to go and speak to Daljit Singh about the pitch. Daljit, however, remained incommunicado on Sunday.
It’s the fast bowlers who have generally enjoyed the Pune pitch over the years. Last year, in the Ranji Trophy final, Mumbai won the title on the back of their seamers’ performances, with lead spinner Iqbal Abdulla bowling only four overs in all. So, in a bid to make the pitch turn square from ball one, those asking for it didn’t take into consideration the relentless Pune sun and the effect it would have on the surface that’s denied the necessary moisture. The MCA member reveals the team management weren’t bothered by repeated appeals by the locals not to tamper with the natural surface of the pitch too much.
“The Pune pitch has a mixed soil. This pitch was originally laid under the guidance of Karl Johnson from the New Zealand sporting centres of excellence. Even MS Dhoni had earlier said it is more of an English wicket. But the MCA knows how to prepare it. This pitch requires a little bit of grass and some moisture to last the distance. If you remove the grass completely, it becomes spiteful, while retaining its bounce. But these people were determined to have a completely bald surface,” he says.
The member also revealed that the team management had been originally asked to give their demand for a turning track in writing. But when informed that such requests aren’t given in writing, the MCA decided to make an internal record of this communication.
“The association told the team management that whatever they wanted to do, they should give it in writing. But nothing was given. No one makes such requests in writing. But the MCA has kept an internal record of the whole thing in writing; that on so-and-so date they got a call from Mr so-and-so and he said ‘you prepare a pitch like this’,” he says.
Neither coach Anil Kumble nor captain Virat Kohli made too much of a fuss about the Pune pitch, however, despite having seen their unbeaten run being brought to an embarrassing end. Following the 7 for 11 collapse in the first innings, Kumble had called it a pitch “where you needed to adapt”.
“It is a challenging surface which requires application, aggression and a bit of caution as well,” he’d added.
Kohli, meanwhile, had said that the Pune pitch wasn’t different to the other “turners” he had played on and blamed the defeat on the batting collapses. When asked about whether the team management had given any “feelers” to the local authorities on how the wicket should be, he’d said, “I don’t know. I didn’t speak to anyone.”