Not exactly a walk in the garden | Cricket - Hindustan Times

Not exactly a walk in the garden

Nov 15, 2023 07:26 AM IST

Two-paced pitch, lower average first innings scores make Kolkata a tougher venue for batters

Scorecards suggest there have been no close matches at Eden Gardens in this World Cup. But Virat Kohli — who had to summon every ounce of his skill and patience to carve his 49th hundred against South Africa here — will be the first to disagree. Playing through the line isn’t a long-term option on this pitch. Neither is attacking in the middle overs. So what do South Africa and Australia, seemingly light on spin, have to do on a pitch that offers appreciable turn, that too pretty early?

General view inside the Eden Gardens during practice (REUTERS)
General view inside the Eden Gardens during practice (REUTERS)

Build the innings

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Win the toss, bat first, and hopefully win. Bangladesh may not admit they passed up the opportunity against Pakistan, but apart from them all other first-time batters— Netherlands, India and England — have worked out results in their favour at Eden Gardens. This isn’t a belter by any stretch of imagination. Seamers get to move the ball around at the start and spinners extract an average of 2.5° turn during the powerplays. Unlike other grounds, there isn’t much bang for buck when it comes to drives. But the square boundaries are smaller (around 65m on both sides), making pull, sweep and cut shots extremely effective.

Pace off the pitch comes down drastically though, making Eden Gardens one of the tougher pitches to bat on. Which makes it doubly important for the batters to maximise returns in the middle (10-40) overs. Both India and England showed that in their innings, scoring 148 runs (4.93 rpo) and 168 runs (5.6 rpo) respectively.

These aren’t extraordinary returns by today’s standards, but definitely par for Eden. That Virat Kohli had to strap himself to the pitch and grind out one of his more arduous hundreds last time South Africa played here shows exactly what this pitch can extract out of the best batters. It calls for a fair bit of skill over flamboyance, which, safe to say, both Australia and South Africa have in equal measure.

The momentum can be set at the start, akin to what Rohit Sharma did, but in the middle overs is where the game can be won or lost. Because if the final powerplays are anything to go by, there are no set rules here. England scored 97 runs in the last 10 overs, but lost seven wickets in that phase; India lost just two wickets in comparison, but added 87 runs. The average first innings score at Eden Gardens during this World Cup is 274. The second innings scores with sides getting bowled out however are 244, 83 and 142. Bat-first makes much more sense once Eden is summarised in those two lines.

Spin in the tale?

Keshav Maharaj averaging three runs per over in an innings that produced 326 runs for India underpins his brilliance when the batting side was on the ascendancy. From another viewpoint, it was also a necessary step to preserve wickets after India had lost their openers.

Bowlers tend to get more respect at Kolkata, especially spinners. Off-break bowlers have an economy of 5.1 in this World Cup, left unorthodox a highly impressive 5.2. But nothing has worked as well as left-arm orthodox spin bowling at Eden—averaging 18.6 runs per wicket, striking every 30 balls, with a dot percentage of 57 and an economy of 3.8. Leg-break bowlers, on the other hand, have gone for plenty here. Their boundary percentage (11) is joint-highest with right-arm pace, not to forget the economy of six per over, highest across all forms of bowlers.

Adam Zampa may have bounced back from a lull but these are worrying numbers for Australia on both fronts. Last time Australia played South Africa in Lucknow during the league phase, they used seven bowlers, Zampa was taken apart for 70 runs while Glenn Maxwell returned 2/34. They could take a leaf out of the same page and focus on giving Zampa shorter spells because the shorter boundaries of Eden could prompt South Africa to go after his loopier leg-breaks. And while batting, there has to be a proper strategy in place to counter Maharaj, regardless of whether Tabraiz Shamsi plays or not.

Will Starc show up?

It’s a separate talking point, purely because World Cups have been the career high points of many revered left-arm pacers but also because Mitchell Starc has been there and done that, leading the wicket-takers tally two World Cups in a row. The yorkers have served him well but that high-armed orthodox action has worked out a grand share of edges too. And if not anything else, no one quite displayed the middle-overs mastery as well as Starc did in the small grounds of England last time.

This World Cup, however, is yet to bring the best out of him. Ten wickets, at 43.90, with an economy of 6.55 per over? That’s not even remotely Starc-like. Here’s where Eden Gardens could be of some help. Fuller length—Starc’s preferred sweet spot—bowling at Eden Gardens has yielded a strike rate of 18, the best across all lengths for both pace and spin. That, along with the left-arm to left-handed matchup against Quinton de Kock tentatively setting up the initial overs, should keep Starc in the hunt if he pushes himself with the new ball.

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    Somshuvra Laha is a sports journalist with over 11 years' experience writing on cricket, football and other sports. He has covered the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, the 2016 ICC World Twenty20, cricket tours of South Africa, West Indies and Bangladesh and the 2010 Commonwealth Games for Hindustan Times.

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