Ind vs SA series: Is there anything called an ideal Test wicket?

Let the art of playing spin, much like pace and bounce, determine a good batter: Sunil Gavaskar

The Newlands track on which 23 wickets fell on the first day of the second India-South Africa Test (photo: @BCCI/X)
The Newlands track on which 23 wickets fell on the first day of the second India-South Africa Test (photo: @BCCI/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The no-holds-barred words from Indian skipper Rohit Sharma on the Cape Town wicket, even after India's series-equalling win on Thursday, 4 January, has been resonating in the cricket community — with good reason. Sharma has once again reopened the debate on an 'ideal Test wicket', and whether a strip like Newlands can justify the ‘dust bowls’ of India, where matches have ended in favour of the hosts in two or three days in recent times. 

‘’The ICC and the referees need to start looking into it. Rate pitches based on how they see it and not based on countries (hosting) it. I am all for pitches like this (Newlands). We pride ourselves on playing on pitches like these, all I want to say is be neutral,’’ said a caustic Rohit after his team pulled off a seven-wicket win in what has been the shortest Test match so far. It surely was not a good advertisement for the longer format, now struggling for survival. 

This is not the first time it has happened on South African pitches. In the 2017-18 series, then home captain Faf du Plessis coaxed the groundsmen to such an extreme that come the final Test, not even the home batters wanted to finish playing on it.

There is a difference between a wicket with true bounce and carry — which challenges a batter’s technique when it comes to leaving deliveries and brings backfoot play to the fore — and the one at Newlands, which showed cracks at the good length mark, causing variable bounce and an inordinately high degree of seam movement, and had the batters producing almost 50 per cent false strokes on day one. 

It will be interesting to see if the ICC has the gumption to question Sharma's statement as the Indian captain has, in a not-so-subtle-manner, questioned the world governing body’s neutrality. He raked up the ‘average’ rating for the Ahmedabad wicket for the last World Cup final, where Australia’s Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne stitched together a match-winning partnership — and it must have added insult to injury after their heartbreaking defeat. 

The question going forward is: is the perception about a good Test wicket producing a balance between the bat and ball a thing of the past? Surely not. Talk about the Oval wicket, where India and Australia played the last World Test Championship final, or the ones for the Ashes immediately after, which tested the batters but did not provide any so called unfair advantage. 

The abject batting failure of South Africa in the first innings (55 all out) prompted some of their past greats, such as former skipper (now TV pundit) Shaun Pollock, to question the pitch, but India’s legendary opener Sunil Gavaskar has a different take. He didn’t see much wrong with the Newlands wicket, but criticised the so-called bias among that section of the SENA media which felt that it is only the ability to tackle pace and bounce which determines the quality of a batter. 

According to the 'little master', much like tackling pace and bounce, the art of playing on wickets where the ball turns into the batter should also be counted as a benchmark. If one needs a masterclass in that art, just go back to Gavaskar’s epic effort of 96 (off 264 balls) against Pakistani spinners on a minefield of a Bangalore wicket in 1987.

Speaking to National Herald, Ashok Malhotra, TV pundit and former India veteran, felt it’s not feasible to enforce uniformity on pitches, since every country is within its rights to design pitches according to their strengths. ‘’I would agree with the view that every nation has a right to play to their strengths. South Africa may have thought pace and awkward bounce would be the best trap to lay for Indian batters, but did they forget that India now have a world class pace attack? The match could have finished even earlier if Mohammed Shami was around!’’ 

Least balls bowled to decide the winner in Test cricket 

  • 2024 South Africa vs India, Newlands (642 balls bowled)

  • 1932 Australia vs South Africa, Melbourne (656 balls bowled) 

  • 1935 West Indies vs England, Bridgetown (672 balls bowled) 

  • 1888 England vs Australia, Lord's (792 balls bowled) 

  • 1888 England vs Australia, Manchester (788 balls bowled) 

  • 1889 South Africa vs England, Cape Town (796 balls bowled) 

  • 1912 England vs South Africa, The Oval (815 balls bowled) 

  • 2021 India vs England Ahmedabad (842 balls) 

  • 1946 Australia vs New Zealand, Wellington (872 balls bowled) 

  • 2000 South Africa vs England, Centurion (883 balls bowled) 

  • 2002 Australia vs Pakistan, Sharjah (893 balls bowled)  

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