By R. Mohan
There is no team in the world which would not like to exploit the home advantage. Some do it more subtly than others. Indians seem to like public spats.
The matter of ordering the pitch to be tailored to home team needs is usually done quietly, with a word whispered by a senior administrator into the ears of the groundsman, who being the eternal patriot would not hesitate to follow instructions. Nowadays, he goes with the fancy title of curator, which may be the reason why he extracts his 15 minutes of fame too.
The theatre of Kolkata cricket has not always been kind to Team India who used to find its wintry ways of enabling swing and seam a bit tough to handle. Not until 1993 when Ajit Wadekar silently had his way of getting a designer pitch for the spinners did Team India win a crucial Test at Eden. That set the ball rolling for a whitewash and designer pitches came in for severe criticism from the visiting media even as the then chairman of England selectors, Ted Dexter, blamed the infamous Kolkata smog and the conjunction of Venus and Mars for the debacle.
A few days later, in Chennai, the groundsman, good old Parthasarathy, was reluctant to follow team orders. Azhar was convinced the grass needed some clipping but since he did not know the then president of TNCA well he wanted me to take a delegation to meet him in his chamber. Now, Balu Alaganan, now sadly demised, was a great sportsman whose conscience may not have permitted him to grant what was being asked. The cream of Indian cricket was in his room and he said very softly that he would see what could be done.
The clippers were used on the surface, which was still a very good one and a masterclass by Sachin Tendulkar on day one put India firmly on the road to victory. The Englishmen’s spirit was broken and it was not long before England were sent tumbling to a 3-0 drubbing in Mumbai where the curator had far less of a problem moulding the red soil to India’s requirements. Graeme Hick made his first hundred then, a sparkling effort. It was not sufficient to keep the marauding Indians at bay.
In the 20 years since that series, Team India has not played England at the Eden Gardens, which has been kinder to the home team lately, certainly as India won the Test match of the millennium when beating the Aussies after following on and 1-0 down in the series. Winters allows at best only a slow turner rather than the square turner that used to feature in Tests in India. Indian cricket has always rationalised the ‘turner’ as the medium of revenge since teams on tour inevitably came across greener pitches in places like England and New Zealand and harder pitches in Australia and the West Indies.
‘Hey, where’s the pitch?” Indians would be heard asking when touring England or New Zealand where curators inevitably welcomed the tourists by hardly taking the grass off the green square when it came to marking the 22 yards by 10 feet. To wreak vengeance, Richards once ordered the worst possible underprepared pitches in Trinidad and Jamaica and he battled Kapil Dev, who was quite a handful on them, to set a personal example.
To say the home advantage is not squeezed out elsewhere in the cricket world is to pretend everyone except Indians are angels. As in the messy case of the veteran curator at the Eden Gardens, things are done in the public eye these days. Things have also been known to swing the other way because of cricket politics. The Aussies were gifted a green top in Nagpur once when Sourav Ganguly was said to have blown his top and didn’t participate. So things do go the other way in India too, which is not to justify the undue use of the home advantage. There’s always the hope that one day Indian cricket would learn to do these things quietly. But then who is to tell Dhoni that?