India’s cricket board, the BCCI, has been accused of intervening in the choice of pitch for India’s semi-final against New Zealand at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.
The selection of pitches at the tournament is the preserve of the International Cricket Council, governed by the principle that surfaces will be chosen to promote a neutral set of conditions, neither favouring the host nation’s strengths nor devaluing the evenness of the contest for the global audience.
An agreement had been reached before the World Cup that the Mumbai semi-final would be played on a fresh pitch in order to give the best chance of even bounce and pace, a de facto “neutral” surface. A report first published in the Daily Mail on Wednesday morning has suggested that the pitch at the Wankhede was changed late on without ICC consent.
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The switch to pitch six from the planned pitch seven meant India’s semi-final took place on a strip that had housed two previous matches, England versus South Africa, and India against Sri Lanka. It was described at the toss by New Zealand captain, Kane Williamson, as a “used surface” and by his Indian counterpart, Rohit Sharma, as looking “on the slower side”.
The change of pitch appeared to offer a prima facie tactical advantage to India, who have an acknowledged strength in slow bowling. Two years ago in the same stadium New Zealand were filleted by India’s spinners, bowled out for 64 on a turning pitch. Reports in the Indian media have previously suggested India’s team management requested slow pitches for its matches before the tournament began, having concluded this would be to its advantage.
In the event India won the toss and asked New Zealand to field first in the same fierce Mumbai heat that had caused England’s bowlers to cramp after Jos Buttler bizarrely opted to take first use of the conditions against South Africa earlier in the tournament. India posted 397 for four from their 50 overs. Chasing under the lights, New Zealand were all out for 327 as the hosts moved into the World Cup final.
It is understood the ICC was informed pitch No 7 had been retired due to an as-yet unexplained problem. ICC pitch consultant Andy Atkinson was apparently unaware of the switch, and that it had been requested.
India’s Virat Kohli hits out as New Zealand’s wicketkeeper Tom Latham looks on during the World Cup semi-final in Mumbai. Photograph: Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images
Separate from the choice of strip, a report in the the Indian Express has also suggested India’s team management asked BCCI-appointed ground staff at the Wankhede to shave the pitch of all remaining grass on the eve of the match, a process that would generally diminish pace and nip.
A member of Mumbai Cricket Association staff is quoted confirming a message was received to prepare a slow track. “It won’t be a turner but the team had asked for a slow pitch. It was the main reason we shaved off the grass.”
An email from Atkinson quoted in the Mail states: “As a result of these actions, one must speculate if this will be the first ever ICC CWC final to have a pitch which has been specifically chosen and prepared to their stipulation at the request of the team management and/or the hierarchy of the home nation board.
“Or will it be selected or prepared without favouritism for either of the sides competing in the match in the usual manner, and unquestionably because it is the usual pitch for the occasion?”
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A spokesperson for the BCCI said: “The ICC independent pitch consultant works with the host and venues on their proposed pitch allocations and this process is ongoing throughout an event of this length and nature.”
The pitch switch will draw a familiarly polarised response, despite the fact under the rules of ICC events pitches are chosen and monitored by the ICC’s own tournament pitch consultant, with selected strips used in consultation with the home board and ground.
This World Cup has already been described as an unusually home-centred event in its administration and staging. In a rare break from the general omerta over India’s economic and cultural control of the sport, the Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur described the experience of playing India at the Modi Stadium as “like playing in a BCCI event”.
And while teams in bilateral series have always prepared pitches to favour the home attack, the variation a part of cricket’s charm and basic difficulty, it runs against the principle of open competition at a global tournament to prepare favourable home conditions.
Home fans, meanwhile, will point out India have now won 10 out of 10 games and the team are by far the most impressive side at the tournament, whatever strip the game happens to take place on. India’s pace attack has also been more potent than its spinners to date. On the other hand, other teams also have high-grade fast bowlers, but in Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav India have an undeniable ace.
There will now be fears that a similar process will be in train for the final in Ahmedabad, sporting jewel of the home state of NarendraModi himself, where an India final is an opportunity for a powerful piece of stagecraft ahead of April’s elections. The majority of group games at the Modi have already seen a switch of surface away from the ICC’s scheduled plan. Currently the ICC is asking the final take place on pitch No 5, which has been used only once.