One captain was happy with how the pitch looked. The other was disappointed. Generally, when that happens, the smile is on the face of the home captain, but at SuperSport Park in Centurion, it was Virat Kohli who spoke eagerly of the bounce expected when the second Test between India and South Africa starts on Saturday(January 13). And Faf du Plessis looked, if not glum then not exactly cheery.
“It looks likely a really lively pitch,” said Kohli on match eve. “Exactly what we expected it to be and we actually wanted it to be that way so that both teams are into the contest provided they play some good cricket. We were pretty happy to see how the wicket behaved in Cape Town. That gave us many opportunities to stay in the game and make comebacks whenever we were put under pressure also. This pitch will again test us to play our best cricket and that is something that we are looking forward to.”
An hour earlier, du Plessis, also responding to the question of how the pitch looked, said “It looks a bit browner than I thought it would be. The information from the groundsman is that the grass on the wicket has been burnt from the heat over the last week. It was very hot. We’ve asked for pace and bounce so hopefully we will get that.
“Generally Centurion doesn’t spin that much, but there is a thick layer of ground grass on it, which is not something we’re used to seeing. So it’s an unknown. Hopefully it doesn’t turn. To get the conditions that we would like, the ball must spin as little as possible.”
People close to the South African team averred that du Plessis hadn’t liked the look, or more specifically the colour of the surface on Thursday too. Bryan Bloy, the groundsman, did take pains to say that the pace and bounce of the pitch would not be affected, but the true test will of course come when the match starts.
Du Plessis’s rationale for the pitches he has asked for is simple. Pace-friendly pitches play to South Africa’s strengths and du Plessis seems to be a man on a mission to win handsomely against India, given South Africa’s comprehensive defeat when they toured the country last. “We prepare bowling friendly conditions because we want to win Test matches,” said the South African captain. “Sitting here as a batsman, the first priority is to win games. If we play in series where the ball takes the upper hand, so be it. As long as we are winning it is fine.”
Kohli, though, was raring to go. “One must not get surprised by the bounce here. We have to maintain composure when you get sudden change of bounce which you experience in South Africa,” he said. “There are other pitches around the world as well, but here the bounce can be steep. It can be quite steep from length also. Those are things you mentally need tune yourself to get over and mentally adjust to, accept that this is going to be a major part of batting in South Africa.”
Kohli also seemed to hint at the lack of preparation for his side once again, drawing a contrast with the 2013-14 tour. “Last time as well when we came here we experienced that in the ODI series initially,” he said. “But by the Test matches we were all well-equipped and we knew exactly what the wicket was going to behave like. We played them much better. So the first game gave us a lot of exposure to that. Still having said that, this pitch is going to be pretty similar in terms of pace and bounce. But I feel that definitely the batting order — through mistakes we committed in the first game and through the experience we gained in the first game — we are certainly in a much better shape to come at their bowling attack in this game.”
Immediately after the first Test, Kohli had insisted the team’s preparation had not lacked in any way, but clearly, having played an actual high-intensity game, Kohli will feel his side is in much better shape to handle South Africa’s bowlers.
Battling against high pace always demands a little bit extra from batsmen, and if nothing else, the pitch is expected to make the ball come through quickly at least. However, with less seam movement, the challenges of pace aren’t quite as stark for international quality batsmen.
“Pace can be as intimidating as you want it to be,” shrugged Kohli. “A guy who is swinging and seaming the ball at 120 clicks looks like 150 when the wicket’s tough. But it doesn’t really matter if a guy is bowling 140 or 150 as long as you are going in there ready to take the challenge. You accept that when the conditions are fast and bouncy, you are likely to get hit every now and then. As an individual you must not think that something strange has happened. You must accept it as playing in conditions that are not your own.
“I think what’s very important is to show character, to show positive attitude in the middle,” went on Kohli, reiterating one of his favourite themes. “That’s what matters. The moment you do that you know the body starts to move well and then the pace doesn’t seem as quick as when you are not mentally there. I think it’s just a mental adjustment. Pace is something lot of us have gotten used to playing at the international level. That is not something that really troubles people many times. If a guy is bowling a good spell that’s a different scenario but it’s all in the individual’s head.”
Du Plessis also pointed at the conditions playing a far more important role than sheer pace. “For me personally, it’s more about the pitch,” he said. “It’s only really when it gets to 150 that it’s really quick. If the pitch has variable bounce and fuller balls are coming past your head and shorter balls are staying down, then pace becomes more dangerous because you’re thinking in the back of your head, ‘I’m not sure what the pitch is doing.’ Hopefully we can see that on this wicket towards the end of the Test match.”
Pace, bounce, variability – all could be factors as the match unfolds. And the next five days will tell us if Kohli’s exhortations or du Plessis’s pragmatism was more accurate.