Indore pitch puzzle: Is it red? Is it black? No, it’s both

IND vs AUS: After being turned over inside three days on a red soil pitch in Nagpur and suffering the same fate on a black soil surface in Delhi, the track at Indore’s Holkar Stadium – venue for the third Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy – provides a fresh puzzle to the Australia team as it is a combination of both types of surfaces.

The pitch in Indore has a red soil coating at the top and black soil underneath to hold everything together. It is similar to the present-day wicket at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai and puts the Australian batsmen under scrutiny against Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel. With the sweep shot proving to be their biggest undoing in the Delhi Test, Australia without their regular captain Pat Cummins – Steve Smith will lead in Indore – are looking to bounce back and keep the series alive.

At Nagpur, LBW and bowled being the predominant modes of dismissal (only nine out of 30 were others) indicated how slow the pitch was. And at Delhi, 18 of the 34 wickets to fall were either LBW or bowled and most of them came in the second and third innings of the Test, which again showed how low and slow it was. And at Indore, as long as the red soil stays intact, the slip and close-in fielders will remain in play.

Surface dictates strategy

At Indore, with a mixture of both soils – especially the red – it also opens up other avenues for Indian spinners.

“On black soil, there is no bounce, and to get a batsman caught in the slips is very rare. On a red soil, there is turn and bounce, and slip and close-in fielders come into play. Plus, spinners tend to deceive batsmen more in the air on such pitches. And more than all of this, a spinner should have control and consistency to land the ball in the same area. Only then will he be effective. If you don’t have that quality, whether you play on black soil or red doesn’t matter. If you have skill and control, you can bowl on both soils,” former India spinner Sunil Joshi, who was also part of the selection panel till recently, told The Indian Express.

Indian spinners have enjoyed bowling on red soil pitches too. When it became certain that Dharamshala (with black soil pitches) won’t be able to host the third Test, the Indian team management’s preference was to move it to a venue where there is red soil content.

And that is how Indore was picked ahead of Mohali and Rajkot. Joshi, who finished his career as the third-highest wicket-taker in Ranji Trophy behind Rajinder Goel and S Venkataraghavan, mentioned growing up playing on red soil pitches as a primary reason why spinners coming out from the South tend to attack more.

“Generally, spinners coming out from the southern part of India are used to playing their club cricket and first-class matches on red soil pitches and are effective. Be it the spin quartet or Anil (Kumble) or myself, we always bowled on red soil and with attacking field placements because that is how you got wickets, using your skill sets. Spinners from the northern belt and central India usually play on black soil and are more used to bowling to a defensive field and bringing LBW and bowled into the equation,” added Joshi who has been part of Oman, US and Bangladesh coaching set-ups in the past.

Indore will be staging just its third Test — against New Zealand in 2016 and in 2019 against Bangladesh – and both were played on red soil pitches. Those matches were played in the months of October and November – the start of the domestic season – they were fresh pitches and the one against New Zealand was what one tends to call a typical Indian pitch. It started off having something in it for the seamers in the first hour before flattening out and starting to take turn by Day 3. For the Test against Bangladesh, there was a bit of grass cover, meaning there was seam movement throughout the Test.

Devil in the details

While a red soil pitch means there will be good bounce and spin on offer, on black soil, lack of bounce and slowness is a trait. This prompts the question as to what to expect on a pitch that is a mixture of both with black being the predominant one.

For starters, it is usually done to keep the pitch from not breaking too quickly under the sun. As March begins, temperatures across India begin to soar and in such conditions, the biggest challenge for the ground staff is to stop the pitch from breaking too soon.

This is where the black soil will come into play. With a better ability to absorb water, it tends to keep the surface intact and it won’t crumble under the sun. And the overnight moisture means it will take time for the pitch to undergo wear and tear. As India assembled for their practice session on Monday with the afternoon temperature in the early 30s, it is learnt that the Indore ground staff kept the pitch covered so that it was not exposed to the scorching heat.

Come Wednesday, like it has been the norm throughout the series, the pitch will once again be the centre of attention.

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