India collapse in Ahmedabad

Sometimes referred to as the armpit of India, Ahmedabad is the capital of the dry state of Gujarat. It is dry because most of the state is desert and because alcohol is prohibited. The ground is often described as the worst venue to tour on the international circuit. But I can report that this reputation is undeserved and that Ahmedabad is a spread out and pleasant city where traffic jams have nothing on the groaning metropolises of Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi. The local cuisine is probably the tastiest in India, tourists are not hassled and the abundance of trees along the Sabarmati River helps one forget about the environmental disaster that is India in the 21st Century.

Or perhaps I am in such jolly spirits because of South Africa’s brilliant performance with the ball today, bowling out India for a paltry 76 runs and following it up with a solid 224 for 4 with the bat. And I smuggled in a good bottle of brandy. And I can have a delicious three course meal for under a dollar and then watch an ICL semi-final and the first day of the second West Indies versus Sri Lanka Test tonight.

India won the toss and elected to bat on a greenish pitch. The decision was a formality despite the unexpected grass cover. The only time a team has ever chosen to bowl first at this stadium was in the first Test at the ground in 1983/4, and that was only because the Indians had no desire to face the formidable attack of Marshall, Holding and co.

The first rule when batting first in Test matches in general and greentops in particular, is to survive until lunch with only one or two wickets down. India knew that there was some life in this pitch – that is why the team spent as long as an hour looking at the strip yesterday and the intelligent engineer that is Captain Kumble played RP Singh ahead of the third spinner, Mr Piyush Chawla. However, Gujarat is virtually a desert state and with ground temperatures measuring up to 48 degrees, this track will dry out and take significant turn. In plain and simple terms one does not want in such conditions and it was a fair toss to win.

The advent of limited overs cricket brought more attacking stroke play to Test match cricket. As a result, draws are far rarer than they once were and this trend is being quickly exacerbated by the current Twenty20 phenomenon. One can only score run-a-ball triple centuries on very flat pitches and today India showed their fans a perfect example of how not to post a first-innings total.

The fashion in which Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel ripped through the best batting line-up in the world (sans Sachin) was remarkable. Equally remarkable was the fact that the experienced, high averaging Indian top six threw away their wickets with gay abandon. Balls that deserved utmost respect from the best pace attack in the world were flashed at without thought or foot movement. The bowling services of Paul Harris and Jacques Kallis were not required as India were all out in exactly 20 overs.

Irfan Pathan top-scored with 21 not out and extras came second with 19 runs, 11 of which were leg-byes. Dhoni made 14 runs, out swiping greedily at an accurate length ball from Morkel when his team was in dire straits at 55/5. Impatience and frustration are no solution to tricky times in Test cricket. No other batsman made double figures. It is of course true that on another day inside edges may have found boundaries rather than stumps but South Africa created opportunities while India self destructed.

The lack of shot-selection discipline will be of grave concern to Gary Kirsten whose success at his job of coaching India will be measured by the performance of his team. Take away one innings from Mr Sehwag and that performance has been well under par. The journalist next to me remarked that the Indian batting line-up are just “flat track bullies” and while he was probably just angry with the dismally low total, there is certainly some truth in that. I remarked to the same fellow that perhaps part of the reason for the collapse was that it is very cloudy but he replied that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and that the dense hazy white matter above the ground was smog from nearby factories. Perhaps it aids swing.

If India wished that Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma had been available for the first Test, they missed them achingly today. For my money, Praveen Kumar’s outstanding Commonwealth Bank Series performances were enough to include him in the squad once the selectors knew that they were without their two premier seamers. How RP Singh’s selection could be justified after his Chennai effort is beyond me.

South Africa passed India’s first-innings total before losing the wicket of Graeme Smith, trapped LBW be the fiery Sreesanth. Neil McKenzie, Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince soon followed him to the pavilion, each of them foxed by the devious Harbhajan Singh. But a magnificent partnership of 106 runs by Kallis (60 not out) and AB de Villiers (59 not out) ensured the visitors were all smiles overnight. They lead by 147 runs and have this Test match by the scruff of the neck.

There was a lot of talk pre-match about what sort of pitch should be prepared here at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Motera, Ahmedabad. Rumours circulated around the Vice President Hotel on Ghandi Ashram Rd, where I am staying with twenty or so Indian journalists, that Anil Kumble and the chief curator of Motera stadium have never seen eye to eye and that a lively pitch was prepared contrary to the specific requests of the Indian team. It was certainly apparent in the run-up to this match that the South African camp was more confident than the host team. It is interesting background information that the last three times India bowled a side out cheaply were on seaming tracks at Johannesburg, Nottingham and Perth.

If South Africa is to win this match they will take an unassailable 1-0 lead into the final Test match at Kanpur, a ground notorious for dead draws. A road of a pitch that fits that stereotype was probably ordered by the Indian team a few weeks ago. However, that particular flavour is no good when you need to win a match just to draw the series. And South Africa has shown they play spin better than any team outside the sub-continent. A crumbling day fpur raging turner would be just the ticket but that might be enough for Green Park to lose its already controversial ICC Test venue status. The groundsman there finds himself in a pickle.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in April 2008, during the second Test between India and South Africa in Ahmedabad.

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