There is a delicious irony hidden here somewhere – after South Africa put up a humongous 438 in the last One Day International of their series against India in Mumbai in October, India team manager Ravi Shastri was furious. Such was his wrath that Shastri abused the curator of that surface Sudhir Naik for making a “flat” pitch which, according to the Indian team manager, was the reason India capitulated in that match.
With the incident still fresh in public memory, the curator of the Pune surface that hosted the first Twenty20 of the India-Sri Lanka series on Tuesday, had every reason to be wary. He wisely prepared a surface which could be described as anything but flat – it was green, it aided swing and even had a bit of turn for the spinners.
The result? India were put in to bat by an inexperienced Sri Lankan team and lost two wickets in the very first over they played. By the fifth over, they had lost four, by the tenth, six. Ironically, the same batsmen who were plundering the bowling in Australia, could only scrape through to 101, and that too due to a saving innings from tail-ender Ravichandran Ashwin.
Moral of the story? Ravi Shastri had better be careful what he wishes for.
The joy of a greentop
In any case, the Pune surface was a sight for sore eyes. For too long now, cricket fans have been used to see flashing blades and balls disappearing into the tiers of the stadium in limited-overs cricket. The art of bowling has reduced from taking wickets to stopping runs. The excuse trotted out is that audiences only like to watch such runfests. But the Pune surface showed that giving the bowlers, and especially the seamers, some power back could still make for exciting, captivating cricket.
A young, inexperienced Sri Lankan attack steamed in and made the ball talk. Good-length deliveries that would usually be put into the crowd suddenly reacquired their potency. The batsmen played and missed, the ball reared up, taking them by surprise. But Sri Lanka were also helped by some poor shots from India’s batsmen who looked like they were still playing like they were still in Australia. Both Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan perished trying to bunt the ball out of the ground. But even the batsmen who followed them failed to adjust – Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh also fell to needless attacking shots.
India’s 101 in the first innings hardly looked challenging but the beauty of a low-scoring match is that it can often create unexpected pressure. The prospect of actually beating the favourites looked like it had got to the unfancied Sri Lankans – they crashed to 23/2 and for a while, it seemed like Mahendra Singh Dhoni would conjure up a miracle from nowhere. But though India’s bowlers put in a stout performance, capped by some extraordinary fielding (in particular, a stunning catch from Suresh Raina late in the innings), it did not prove to be enough. Sri Lanka just about squeaked over the line with five wickets in hand.
It wasn’t slam-bang cricket, it was laboured and often difficult for the batsmen. But it provided for a far better spectacle than any of the recent Twenty20s in Australia. Dare we say it, can we see more of the same in the next two Twenty20s scheduled for the series? Going by recent trends, probably not.