Good pitch. Bad pitch.
On each of the first four days of the Nagpur Test, during the post-play press conference, a senior English journalist asked the same question. "Is this pitch a good one for Test cricket?" He did not ask this question on the fifth day. Perhaps because England had registered an amazing Test series win in India. Or because on the fourth evening, when asked this question, R Ashwin had been quite direct in his answer. "We have played a lot of Test cricket, on result pitches and on pitches where matches are drawn. I am sure you have seen a lot of matches. You find such pitches, you play and you move on. This is Test cricket too," he said.
A lot was said about the Nagpur pitch, in newsprint, on websites, in press conferences and of course, on social media. To be honest it was the worst pitch of the series. But before you draw any conclusions out of that statement alone, mind that it is a comparative one with a small sample of four pitches, all in the sub-continent. Devoid of any bounce, it was low and slow, with batting not easy. Bowling was an even tougher proposition. Did it make for entertainment? No. Did it make for good Test cricket? Maybe not on the last two days, with only one team chasing a result, but certainly on the first three!
Kevin Pietersen called it the toughest pitch he had batted on, claiming it would have been a challenge for his team to win the series on this square. He did not rank his half century on a par with his Mumbai hundred, and he would have been crazy to do so. Even so, you could see that he loved the challenge on an untrue pitch, doing the job for his team. The bowlers could come at the batsmen only in the sense that they couldn't know how high the next delivery will rise. It made for an intriguing first day.
Then James Anderson's second day burst put the match in an even more interesting stride, with new batsmen unable to get starts. Later Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni showed how it was to be done, with set batsmen ruling the roost for the last three days.
In the end England did win the series. But that needs to be put in perspective. It wasn't the pitch that lost India the Anthony De Mello Trophy. It was their failures both in the fourth Test and earlier in the series, to get into any position of advantage and then make it count. A simple example would be the English getting to bat a second time at Nagpur and never giving the hosts a whiff.
But, was it the worst pitch of the year? How do you define a bad pitch? One where only 200 runs are scored in a day, a la Nagpur, or the one in Adelaide, where recently against South Africa, Australia powered their way to 482 runs in 90 overs. What was the difference between the two wickets? The latter had more bounce and a fast outfield to support shot-making. Alternately, what was the big similarity? Both tracks never gave bowlers a chance.
When you look back at this four Test series, the pitches at Mumbai and Kolkata leave a mark. More so the one at Wankhede, for the latter is masked by India's tragic collapse on the fourth day. The wicket for the second Test afforded ample bounce, took turn from day one yet brought spinners into play only if they figured out the pace of the track, and asked the batsmen to get in before making merry. A good pitch is one which tests both bowlers and batsmen, pun intended. By definition, it should have good bounce and carry for batsmen to play their shots. It should encourage bowlers to be able to bend their backs and get some purchase off their inputs on the ball, be it in seam or spin friendly conditions.
India will find the former challenging when they tour abroad, and the likes of Australia or England will find the latter so, when they tour the sub-continent. But then what about the Eden Gardens' veteran pitch curator's reasoning that a wicket should make sure the game lasts five days? The third Test should have finished in four days, but for Ashwin's gritty defence. No one factor alone controls the pace of this game.
Test cricket is not dying because of pitches like Nagpur, or even Adelaide, where only one aspect bears heavy. It isn't dying because today the masses need to find entertainment even in the slow nature of the five-day matches. It isn't dying because the drama enacted by captains and pitch curators are leaving behind soap operas. And it surely isn't dying because India have been on a losing spree even as the IPL finds a new title sponsor who's willingly paying double the previous amount.
It is in poor health, one will agree to that. But even then, it isn't because any of the afflictions mentioned above. It is so, only and only because there is a lack of intent among the various interests controlling the game and propagating its most superior format.
There is a lack of objectivity on the media's part to acclaim that sub-continental pitches formulate a challenge of their own, and this challenge is as tough as the ones presented by green-tops. There is a lack of purpose on the ICC's part that they will never investigate Tests ending in three days on seaming wickets, but square turners producing such results will mean penalties for host associations. There is a lack of gamesmanship on the curators' part not to accord home advantage to their teams. And, there is a lack of willingness to compete on those captains' part, whose sides are not capable enough to be competitive in all conditions.