Ranchi's low bounce catches India off-guard

What is the key to batting on tricky pitches? (2:06)

Sanjay Manjrekar on what batters can do better on surfaces such as in Ranchi (2:06)

India's rare defeats in home Tests over the last decade have tended to be of two types. In Pune in 2017 and Indore last year, they lost to Australia on square turners that narrowed the gap between India's spin attack and that of the visitors. In Chennai in 2021, they lost to England on a pitch where the toss had a significant influence on the result: it was flat on the first two days, when England piled up 578, and began to take appreciable turn thereafter.

Now, after two days of play in Ranchi, India could be on their way to another home defeat. They are seven down and 134 adrift of England's first-innings total, and they will be batting fourth. And the pitch that has helped bring them to this position has been a curious one, combining the effects of the Pune/Indore-style bunsen and the Chennai-style toss magnifier.

It hasn't exactly been a square turner, but it has armed spinners with variable bounce - particularly low bounce. And while the Ranchi pitch hasn't been anything like flat at any point, uneven bounce has seemed to have a greater effect on day two than it did on day one, and it's only likely to get worse. The toss, then, may have been crucial.

There's a caveat, though. For losing the toss, India gained a window of seam movement and awkward bounce for their fast bowlers on the first morning, when there was a bit of moisture in the pitch for the new ball to work with. The debutant Akash Deep took three wickets in his opening spell, helping reduce England to 112 for 5.

Since then, though, England have had the best of the conditions, and have batted and bowled brilliantly to take full advantage. Batting became easier through the second and third sessions of day one, when the pitch dried out and the ball lost its hardness and shine, and while low bounce was a threat even on day one, it only seemed to get more pronounced on day two.

The conditions have contributed to the vulnerable position India find themselves in, and their bowling coach Paras Mhambrey suggested they were surprised by how this pitch has played, and how quickly uneven bounce has become a factor.

"From the couple of games that previously we've seen out here, generally the nature of the wicket is, it gets lower and slower as the days progress," he said. "In the past also, if you see a couple of games that [were] played, it has got slower, on lower side as well. So we expected that, but to be honest we didn't expect it to be playing that low on the second day itself.

"I think a couple of balls did keep low in the first innings as well, but that's what we didn't expect. We expected it to get slower as the days progress, but not the variable bounce that we've seen in the last couple of days."

The low bounce has had a ripple effect on the game. Apart from the chances it has directly helped create, it has also widened the spinners' margin for error. All through this series, India have taken advantage of the relative lack of control of England's young spin attack, but on this Ranchi pitch, the bowlers have had to bowl genuine long-hops to get attacked square of the wicket. Given the threat of the shooter, batters have had to offer a straight bat even to marginally short balls.

As well as Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley bowled, then, this widened margin for error also helped them settle and build a constricting rhythm. They sent down 32 and 19 overs, respectively, virtually in single spells - their only break came when they swapped ends late in the day - and made excellent use of their high release points and pace into the pitch, attributes for which they were selected for this tour ahead of more experienced candidates.

In the past, India have made their preference for spinner-friendly pitches clear during certain home series. During the Border-Gavaskar series last year, their coach Rahul Dravid admitted that the pressure of having to win Test matches and accumulate World Test Championship points was leading them to push for turning pitches rather than flat ones.

The first three Tests of this India-England series have witnessed a return to a more traditional style of Indian pitch, largely batter-friendly through the first three days or so, with wear and tear bringing spinners into play thereafter.

This Ranchi pitch has been different. In the lead-up to the Test match, India may have had a case to ask for a turning pitch given that they were resting Jasprit Bumrah, their leading fast bowler and most influential player of the series. According to Mhambrey, they made no such request, and had expected that this pitch, going by its history, would play similarly to the one in Rajkot for the third Test.

"Firstly, venues are not something we can control," he said. "This was a venue allotted for the series as well. The way the wicket plays out here has always been similar. It has always not been a rank turner. I wouldn't call this a rank turner because there was variable bounce. I don't think too many balls spun sharply from the wicket and there was variable bounce on the lower side. That made batting difficult.

"But that's the nature of the soil and there was no specific instruction of a rank turner from our side. It was a similar wicket to [Rajkot] which turned a little bit. We expected it to be similar but the soil out here is different and you can't guarantee the exact wicket you want. There honestly weren't any instructions that we need a turner. I don't think it is a turner as of now. It's just the low bounce which is making batting a little difficult. I don't think there has been any ball which has really spun to call it a turning wicket here."