“The pitch preparation, as earlier mentioned, is an art; one which has a history of years of evolution and also one which has lost the sheen and sparkle of yesteryears. When the pitch is a tad soft, after a rain perhaps, and then hardens up under the sun, the use of a heavy roller can sometimes bring the moisture from beneath the surface to the top”.
The story of Cape Town track
The Newlands wicket was a modern day wonder. In the times of dried out Lord’s wickets, ‘flat as a pancake’ WACA wicket and spin bowlers calling the shots around the globe, South Africa had zealous, fervid viewers over the moon with a zippy, nippy, seaming wicket.
The exceptional nature of the surface contributed to the visual pantomime that the Newlands Test was. Cricket is often described as a batsman’s game with the rules, conditions and technicalities heavily lop-sided in favour of the men with the willow. Yet, alter your point of view and cricket, Test cricket, in particular, is a bowler’s game. You don’t win a Test without taking 20 wickets and any pitch where the bowlers have a chance is a result-oriented wicket. On non-conducive wickets, bowlers are merely playing Russian Roulette, hoping against hope that the dominant batsmen make a mistake or get hungry for biscuit and fish at an innocuous delivery.
At Newlands, though, the Russian Roulette was for the batsmen. They either survived by sheer luck or refused to be chugged down by the bowlers and counter-attacked like AB de Villiers. India had a hero in Hardik Pandya but Virat Kohli was wise enough to recognise that India’s chances were hanging by a thread even though they had just 208 to scale down in the final innings.
They had witnessed the technically competent South African batsmen look ugly, almost beagle-brained, in their second innings against the visiting seamers. India just did not have the history in the country (or in any other country except at home) to suggest that they would apathetically chase down 208.
Did the suggestion for the use of a heavy roller backfire?
According to Evan Flint, the man who produced the playing surface at Newlands, Kohli specifically asked for a heavy roller to be used at the change of innings. In case you did not know, at the change of every innings, the skipper of the side about to bat next has the choice of using a roller which suits his fancies – a light one or heavier one – for a maximum of seven minutes as per a revision to the law a few years back.
There is an everlasting image from the manuscripts of ancient cricket history before the Second World War. The image has Bosser Martin, who produced an unsympathetic surface at The Oval in 1938 for an England – Australia match, standing with his hands resting on a heavy roller (ironically named Bosser’s pet). The background has the scorecard of the match which shows just how good the surface was for batting. England racked up 903 with Len Hutton smashing 364 and beat Australia by an innings and 579 runs.
Let’s face it, batsmen love the heavy roller. Virat Kohli would have bet his life on a heavy roller at Newlands before India’s second innings. He did. He was just doing what he felt would suit India. But the scientific intricacies of pitch preparation are often unknown to players, sometimes even groundsmen themselves.
“From my experience, particularly here on a coastal ground, the impact of the heavy roller, it should really flatten the wicket out, take some life out of it and make it a bit easier for batting. When you go up in the Highveld, Wanderers and Centurion, the heavy roller can sometimes break the plates up a little bit and it becomes a bit more inconsistent in bounce. Here, the heavy roller should normally flatten it down. Even that didn’t have too much of an effect”, Evan Flint, the curator of the Newlands surface said as revealed by the Economic Times.
A pitch that was turning would just need a light roller and a pitch with grass would need a heavy one is the school of thought which wins the majority. India had decimated South Africa for 130 in the second innings and the pitch, which was covered up for a whole day owing to rain, had broken beads of sweat and alongside the grass, made batting near impossible (even for AB de Villiers to an extent) on day 4.
The heavy roller and the sun popping out after lunch on day 4 would surely make the surface better for batting and suit the Indians in the run chase. Or so thought Virat Kohli and the others.
It gets interesting right here. The pitch preparation, as earlier mentioned, is an art; one which has a history of years of evolution and also one which has lost the sheen and sparkle of yesteryears. When the pitch is a tad soft, after a rain perhaps, and then hardens up under the sun, the use of a heavy roller can sometimes bring the moisture from beneath the surface to the top. It results in uneven bounce and profligate sideways seam movement.
The outcome was not satisfactory for India
Both of this was on full display at Newlands when India came out to bat. The first few overs had little for South Africa’s bowlers and you almost felt India were cruising to their target in spite of Murali Vijay’s incredibly lucky tenure at the wicket. Then, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel started getting spongy bounce and seam movement.
Dhawan and Pujara were victims of extra bounce from Morne Morkel while Philander literally dragged India from riches in the sub-continent to the hardships of South African wickets with a mesmerising spell that not only left India’s middle-order a gaping hole but also had Ravi Shastri eating his own words before the start of the series.
“If it’s going to be tough for our batsmen, we will make it tough for their batsmen”, Shastri had said in the press conference before India flew out to the Rainbow Nation. The words came true but it was South Africa’s unforgiving bowlers who made batting touch the realms of impossibility on day 4. In particular, it was Vernon Philander who destroyed the cream of India’s batting (if you could call it cream still).
Evan Flint accepts that Kohli might just have played into South Africa’s hands with his preference for the heavy roller. “The heavy roller draws moisture up from underneath. Yeah, yeah, it could’ve happened. It’s possible. It looked like it eh?” conceded Flint. “I thought Kohli was quite clever on Day 1. He used the small roller at the change of innings. It didn’t liven the pitch up or anything. Sometimes the heavy roller can quicken the pitch up but take the seam movement out of it. Look, it’s not based on research. Most of it is anecdotal.”
Whatever said and done, the Newlands Test is rapidly growing on the popularity scale even after two days since the end of the Test with something as minute as a roller (not literally, of course) probably swaying the well-balanced Test match in favour of the hosts. Technology and analysis need to grow further, huh?