Nature vs Nurture: Dusty flat tracks or bowler-friendly pitches for Indian cricket?
While home conditions in any other sport would mean solid support from a packed stadium, familiar environment and probably some refereeing leeway in those borderline decisions, home conditions in cricket have an additional dimension added to it. Yes, that’s right – the nature of the pitch. Home conditions mean the very pitches that you played on ever since you first padded up to face your first delivery or marked your run up to bowl. It also means that not even the most expert reader of the cricket pitch would probably be able predict what it does and when it does that, as accurately as you do. Prediction may be the wrong word to use in the context. You won’t be able to predict it. You would know it in your bones. You’ve been conditioned to playing on these pitches through years of practice, the way the famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov conditioned his dog to expect food when he played the bell tone. But what if the well-conditioned dog were played Beethoven instead of the bell tone? Would it still expect the food?
The only downside to conditioning is probably the effect it has on adaptability. An unconditioned dog would have relied on its sense of smell and instincts to look for food. The conditioned one on the other hand would rely on the bell tone. You might have guessed where I’m leading with this. Extrapolating the same argument, too much of conditioning on home pitches would start destroying the adaptability required to survive on foreign turfs. The thing with cricket pitches is that all the pitches in one region usually tend to be of a kind, very much like one unified home condition for a country – Like how all the pitches in Australia tend to be bouncy, where the ball just skids off the surface, not losing much momentum after hitting the deck; or like South Africa, England or New Zealand where the pitches tend to offer relatively lesser bounce but assist the seamers through added swing; or like the sub-continent, where the dusty pitches tend to assist the spinners.
Before the advent of modern day cricket as we know it, given the diverse geographic and climatic conditions, it is only natural that the players from a particular region would hone their skills shaped by their environs. As the advent of television and globalization began, and sports started being more than just sports; younger generations trained, following in the footsteps of their idols, all the while losing adaptability, gaining expertise in a confined set of conditions. By the turn of the century, this admiration became tradition and before we know it, we were looking at cricketing heritage – the spin-heavy cricket in the sub-continent, the seam-centred Aussie attack, the sultans of swing from England. And the same team which ripped an opposition to shreds in its own domicile might struggle even to make it sweat in foreign conditions. When you step on foreign turf, the outside edges happen because the ball did not bounce as much or bowlers get clobbered to sixes because the ball did not turn as much.
With increasing international participation in domestic tournaments like IPL and BBL, cricketers are growing more and more accustomed to foreign conditions. They are slowly but surely edging out the pitch factor from the home advantage. They are rediscovering their adaptability. It is reflected in number of home series upsets witnessed in the recent times. Pakistan and England achieving historic wins in India, Sri Lanka upsetting Australia and New Zealand coming from behind in South Africa may just be a taste of the things to come. When the English spinners outclassed their Indian counterparts, or when the Indian swing attack matched the English, it can be written as a one-off event or can be seen as the first winds of change; a change, the onset of which has as special a significance as the change itself, for it coincides with a major transition in contemporary cricket, a time when most of the legends of the yesteryear have retired or are on the verge of retiring.
At this critical juncture where the onus is being shifted onto the shoulders of the younger generation, India is one of the few teams that are still struggling to come to terms with their adaptability. Over the past year and half, although there has been a hint of change, conspicuous especially in the composition of their bowling attack, there was always trouble at the slightest change of conditions. Which brings me back to my original question “Nature vs. nurture: Does Indian cricket need dusty flat tracks or bowler friendly pitches?” A cursory glance at the last few series might lead one to the obvious conclusion that India needs more flat tracks; I mean, look at how they were routed in their past few series, with our batting failing miserably.
However, the story doesn’t end there. Look at what the series against Pakistan brought in for example; an unrelenting grit coupled with adaptability was hammered into them through the tough playing conditions. This resilience was the only evident difference between them and the English side, when India took on England in the ODIs. Yes, the first few series might not be smooth sailing, but they will learn to rely on their cricketing instincts rather than the familiarity of the pitch. If they can rediscover their adaptability by playing on diverse conditions at home, with the entire stadium cheering for them, they would grow into a formidable opponent ready to perform anywhere in the world. It’s like muscle training in boxing; stress from muscle training might leave you far below your full capacity for the first few days, but once the results from the training start kicking in, it will deliver a knock-out punch that can sweep any opponent off his feet. India is perfectly set for this transition, with the young talent ready to move on to a bigger stage. But, if they manage to recapture their adaptability, India has a chance to rid themselves of their tag – “Lions at home, lambs abroad!”.