India vs West Indies: There was a brisk makeover unfurling at the SCA stadium. An army of sweepers was cleaning up the stands, a bunch of youngsters was swishing another coat of paint on the newly-erected sight-screens, a herd of rollers was bristling up and down the outfield, stiffening the bare, brown patches of the ground. The BCCI chief curator Daljit Singh and his bevvy of accomplices frantically kept thudding the sun-scorched strips with clenched fists and anxious faces.
It was as if the entire stadium, and the people inside it, have suddenly woken up to the prospect of a Test match being played here, the second the venue would host, and in mood and context perceptibly contrasting to its Test debut two years ago. Back in 2016 when England made Rajkot the newest Test venue; it was about the magnificent stadium, the bowl-like outfield, the world-class nets, the spaceship-shaped media box ala Lord’s. The walls inside the stadium were painted with the faces of the past and present cricketing heroes of Saurashtra. Those faces still remain, only that the paint is peeling off, the facial contours are gradually blurring. Test-match buzz, whatsoever, is vacuous this time around. Even India practised quietly, without the teeming fanfare that accompanies them wherever they travel.
Metaphorically, it captures the overwhelming mood of the series. West Indies are no England, even if the latter fared miserably in the series; placed eighth in the ladder of Test-playing countries and with few recognisable names and faces. Recent history is even more incriminating: The last time they won a series in India was 35 years ago, the last time they beat India in a Test match was 17 years ago. Moreover, the line-up doesn’t exude the quintessential Caribbean flair. The earnest Roston Chases and Kraigg Brathwaite of the red-ball world are no thrill-spewing Chris Gayles or Dwayne Bravos of the white-ball universe.
In essence, it seems a meaningless ritual of a rubber, like the series against Sri Lanka in November last year, when India’s skipper Virat Kohli fussed about the inexorable workload before they boarded to South Africa.
No such workload darts were fired on Tuesday. Conversely, vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane spoke with a hint of urgency about the series. “Each and every match is equally important and we are just looking to play to our standards, rather than thinking about our opponents,” he remarked. His words seem platitudinal, but the circumstances only mitigate his rationale. Fair enough to say that Kohli has a bit of agonising and fretting over his best team, unlike the Sri Lanka series, where it was more about trying different permutations. If that series was all about the future, all about South Africa, this one is as much as about the present as the future.
Kohli’s concerns could be graver this time. He has just these two Tests to assess the international mettle of his uncapped openers—Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw, one of whom will definitely make his debut on Thursday. Two Tests might be too less a period to gauge enduring potential, but like the ground two days before the Test, Kohli would wish they too would make a brisk transformation.
Equally so his spark-less middle-order, another of his haunting concerns ignited by the England series. Rahane himself wouldn’t do badly to tuck in some runs and regain his battered temperament and reputation; Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant could reinforce that they have accosted to the demands of Test cricket. Even home-boy Cheteshwar Pujara could revive his gluttonous run-piling ways. They could be in for some robust examination by Shannon Gabriel & Co.
As for the bowlers, a fully-fit Ravichandran Ashwin could look to regain the rhythm that was amiss in the latter half of the England series. At the nets on Tuesday, he was getting a lot of body into his action, the follow-through came nicely along, and not jarred as it was after the Lord’s Test. So the more you inspect closely, the bigger the stakes are for some of the vital personnel of this team. As the truism goes, a few Test matches in familiar climes could be all they need for a magic makeover.
But whether they would demand truly familiar conditions or heckle to reproduce the ambitiously unreproducible Australia-like conditions has to be seen. Daljit and Co were flown to Rajkot, which led to much heartburn for the local curators so that they could help make the surface hard and bouncy. But on the other hand, MSK Prasad was hypothetically speaking about playing three spinners, as is usual here for first-class fixtures.
There, though, was luxuriant grass on all strips, barring the middle one, where the grass was concentrated on the good-length area. It could also be to counter the harsh sun which could prematurely cut open the cracks, making it behave too oddly too early in the match. Later in the evening, a group of ground-staff could be seen kneeling on the strip, wire brushes in hand, scrubbing away eagerly at the grass, suggestive of the live grass disappearing as the match draws closer.
There, of course, is a recent precedent of India getting the exact variety of pitch they’d wanted. In the first Test against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens, they’d briefed the curator for a seaming surface and their wish was fulfilled. Then the weather too favoured curating a green track. It was mid-November, and it had rained substantially in the build-up and during the match. But Rajkot is bestially hot, and the predominantly clayey soil doesn’t help their bid either. The curators in this neck of the woods swear that they can quickly turn a good pitch into a bad one, but not the other way around. That could be the only makeover that wouldn’t manifest in front of Kohli’s eyes.