The light ‘Roller effect’: Sunil Gavaskar on why Nagpur pitch behaves differently in second session

India vs Australia: Right at the end of the first session on second day at Nagpur Test, even as Mark Waugh and Ravi Shastri were wondering why the pitch appeared to be eased out in the morning, with Shastri saying it could be because the moisture is out of the pitch by now, Sunil Gavaskar made a pithy comment about the roller.

“The roller makes a big difference. The roller Indians used levelled up the pitch in the first hour. That’s why we saw couple of wickets in the second hour, bit more turn and variable bounce etc”.

It’s learnt that light roller was used by the Indians on the morning before the start of play. It’s the prerogative of the batting captain to choose the roller he wants: heavy or light at start of the play, according to the ICC’s playing conditions.

The effect of the roller wears away after a while and the pitch starts to bake under the sun and cracks widen again in the second session. Hence more variable bounce and bit more misbehaviour from the pitch in the second session.

Indian cricket team head coach Rahul Dravid inspects the pitch ahead of the first cricket test match between India and Australia, in Nagpur, India, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Why not a heavy roller, though? A curator explains.

“Light roller will just disturb the top layer, especially on turners. And as the day progresses, the second it will break up a lot under the sun. But if you use a hard roller, it will break up the entire thing – bottom layer as well and there is chance it will crumble.
Especially the red soil, as it is in Nagpur, it can tend to crumble under heavy roller. If the soft roller used, it will take just the top off and bottom stays intact,” he told this newspaper.

Shastri’s point about moisture holds good for the morning sessions. When moisture escapes the surface, not just fast bowlers, it helps spinners grip and turn as Shastri regularly explains on commentary.

It’s another thing that heavy roller can do as a side-effect. It can compress the soil hard and release the moisture.

When Kohli possibly used the wrong roller

Occasionally, the heavy roller can back fire too as it’s presumed to have done to the Indians at the Newlands pitch in a Test match in 2018. After being bundled out for a modest total of 209 runs in the first innings, India restricted South Africa to just 130 runs in the second innings, setting a target of 208 runs for themselves. With a batting order full of star names, chasing this down wasn’t a tough task, or at least it seemed like. Indian captain Virat Kohli wanted a hard-pressed pitch to chase this total down. So, in came ‘Big Blue’, Newland’s heavy roller.

There is no scientific proof for this but the anecdotal evidence suggested the heavy roller ended up spicing the pitch.
It is believed that more pressure on the surface leads to moisture being squeezed out. Often, a heavy roller can also end up making a surface faster, helping the seamers.

India were bowled out for 135. “I thought Kohli was quite clever on Day 1. He used the small roller at the change of innings. It didn’t liven the pitch up or anything. Sometimes, the heavy roller can quicken the pitch up but take the seam movement out. Look, it’s not based on research. Most of it is anecdotal,” the curator Evan Flint told The Indian Express.

“The heavy roller draws moisture up from underneath, but I’m not so sure of that … It’s possible.”

Indian cricket team head coach Rahul Dravid inspects the pitch ahead of the first cricket test match between India and Australia, in Nagpur, India, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

When Tendulkar didn’t use a roller

Like Sachin Tendulkar had during his last Ranji game against Haryana at Lahli, a pacer’s paradise, in 2013. Back in 2013, Tendulkar urged the Mumbai captain Zaheer Khan to take the “none of the above” option when the visitors were given the “light” or “strong” option at the start of the innings that would be his last for Mumbai.

Nestled in the middle of fields, the water table of the area at Lahli is quite high. Locals have seen games where the pitch gets greener and faster with each passing day.In the first innings, Tendulkar had fallen cheaply to pacer Mohit Sharma, beaten by a rising ball. The ball had pitched on a length, landed on the seam and climbed. Tendulkar’s push was beaten; the ball hit his right elbow and ricocheted onto the stumps.

Years later, Haryana wicketkeeper Nitin Saini spoke about the game and the genius of Tendulkar.

“In the second innings, Sachin paaji refused to take the heavy roller and we were all surprised because conventional wisdom says it would make the pitch more conducive to bat on. He made 79 not out. Later, he told us that since the water table is so high here, having the pitch rolled would have got the moisture out and made batting tough against the seamers. And we were like ‘we had played on this pitch all our lives and never thought of it’.”

According to the playing conditions of the ICC, it’s the fielding team’s prerogative.

“During the match the pitch may be rolled at the request of the captain of the batting side, for a period of not more than 7 minutes, before the start of each innings, other than the first innings of the match, and before the start of each subsequent day’s play.” Further, Law 10. (c) elucidates on the ‘Choice of rollers’ as: “If there is more than one roller available the captain of the batting side shall choose which one is to be used.”

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