When India saw the fixtures for this summer’s Test series they would have been elated. Arguably the world’s quickest, bounciest pitch, the WACA, was nowhere to be seen.
When the equally lively deck at the Gabba proved comfortably less venomous than last summer they must have been pinching themselves.
When the venue where quicks have prospered most in recent years, the MCG, turned out a surface resembling a Delhi highway the tourists’ smiles must have been as broad as the country they were touring.
‘Are we really in Australia?’, they may have pondered, looking skyward in appreciation of the comfortable circumstances.
While they have received a sometimes hostile reception from the Australian players, the Indians could scarcely have hoped for better hospitality from the local curators.
Given the way in which the Indians order their own groundsmen to doctor pitches that will haunt touring sides, they must be incredulous at the conditions so far in this series.
Australia boast a pair of fast bowlers, in Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson, who are among the top-five bowlers in Test cricket and who thrive on responsive pitches.
India boast a ragtag bunch of seamers who, despite reasonable levels of talent, rarely run through opposition line-ups regardless of the pitch conditions.
The tourists’ batsmen have also been exposed repeatedly on decks which offer help to fast men. That is understandable as the pitches on which they hone their game in India very, very rarely behave in this manner.
Foreign environments test even the elite cricketers. Arguably Australia’s second-greatest batsman of all time, Ricky Ponting, never managed to master the dry, dusty Indian decks. Few Australian batsmen have.
That is why when Australia visit the subcontinent they are greeted with pitches which look like a strip of the Gobi desert.
Pitches which turn from the first session. Pitches which offer dramatic variations in pace and bounce. Pitches so low and slow they torment Australia’s pace battery.
We accept this as the norm in cricket.
Countries prepare surfaces to suit their side. When Australia toured England last year the often juicy local decks were remarkably parched. The English recognised that their champion spinner Graeme Swann was the key difference between the teams and manufactured pitches that would assist him.
It worked. Swann, who struggled in the other three Ashes series in which he played, was suddenly a major weapon and finished the series as the leading wicket-taker from either side.
Australia swiftly returned the favour last summer by ensuring that pitches Down Under allowed Johnson and Harris to wreak havoc. So why have Australia offered a sucker an even break this time? Johnson and Harris have both expressed their disgruntlement.
The latter player, who is known for being very even-handed in the media, was shocked that the Australian decks had been so amiable.
“I’m not saying we should get ridiculous bouncy wickets,” Harris said last week. “But we go to India and get absolute shockers over there so it’d be nice to get some green tops over here.”
Johnson was even more forthcoming, criticising the Australian curators heavily last week.
“We played over there (in India) and lost four-nil on some pretty ordinary wickets. I thought we were hoping for them to come over here and play on some good, bouncy, wickets,” Johnson said.
“I even thought the Gabba wasn’t the normal Gabba. There was a bit of bounce there, but it wasn’t the same. Wickets have been suited for the batsmen more than anything.”
Some will say the flat pitches this summer are solely the result of Cricket Australia trying to protect its bottom line. No doubt they would like the Tests to stretch into Day 5 to ensure maximum ticket sales and to please the broadcasters.
But this is not a new imperative. Yet this is the first summer in recent memory in which the local pitches have changed in nature and in doing so benefited the visiting side.
Cricket Australia would have been concerned that if Harris got the green tops he hoped for the Tests could have ended inside three days. However, that is no reason to overcorrect and offer India the kind of generosity which they will never return.
While Australia boast a potent pace attack they should prepare to play on lifeless decks every time they journey overseas. Touring sides should expect similar pitch tactics when they visit Australia.