Pandurang Salgaoncar will make a Test debut on Thursday, and he be damned if someone denies him this time. Those who have watched Salgaoncar, 67 now, bowl in the 1970s swear by his pace. Salgaoncar himself never tires of telling you how he made batsmen run away in fear. He once hit Sunil Gavaskar on the hand, forcing him to miss the next Test. That was enough to spread the word in the whole country but the selectors. He came close to playing for India on three occasions, all in the two years leading to first World Cup.
Salgaoncar went to Sri Lanka to play unofficial Tests in 1974, and fondly remembers a match in which he bowled 24 overs out of 55.4 to help enforce a follow-on. He then bowled 38 overs in the follow-on. Madan Lal was his new-ball partner in that match. He took 10 wickets to Salgaoncar's seven, and made it to the England tour later that year. Representing West Zone against a strong West Indies XI, Salgaoncar took out Roy Fredericks and Alvin Kallicharan in his first spell but lost out to Abid Ali, who would allow Tiger Pataudi to play an extra spinner.
In 1975, Salgaoncar says, he bowled 12 overs for 11 runs in a trial match for World Cup team selection, but wasn't chosen. Salgaoncar has recently had bariatric surgery to get rid of more than 20 kilos, and with that diabetes etc. "I can eat any sweets I want," he says, but there is a certain bitterness towards India and Indian cricket that still persists. He is now the curator at the MCA Ground in Pune. "This is finally going to be my Test debut," he says.
Except that now he is not supposed to be playing for India. He is also a fast bowler to the core. At least he talks like one. "The ball will fly here," he says. "Even if the pitch cracks, it won't turn alarmingly. I have prepared a pitch for cricket."
Australia's Josh Hazlewood, who has seen the pitch, laughed off the suggestion that the ball will fly. The pitch is expected to turn, it has only 2mm grass cover, and the only consolation for Australia is that this square is known for its bounce. In the Ranji Trophy, it rolls out flat batting tracks but when the home side is desperate for an outright result they always take the seam route.
Salgaoncar says there won't be seam movement but there will be bounce. If he has his way, batsmen will surely be "running away". He is not the only one in charge of this pitch. Dhiraj Parsana, a former fast bowler two years older than Salgaoncar who went on to play two Tests for India, is also here. He is the zonal head of the BCCI grounds and pitches committee. Daljit Singh, former Bihar wicketkeeper and now the national head of the pitches committee, is also here. Salgaoncar once gave a seaming T20 pitch on which India were bowled out for 101. There won't be a repeat.
The pitches, though, have long stopped being the main discourse in an Indian season. They have stopped being as extreme as they were against South Africa. "I can only talk about since the time I've been involved," India's coach Anil Kumble said of the transition in the pitches. "If you look back at the nine Tests that we've played at home, each one has had its own challenges. We've played at venues where Test cricket hasn't been played before. This team is capable of adjusting and adapting to whatever challenges come up."
The pitch at this ground - which looks like a spaceship planted in the middle of nowhere - is 80% black cotton soil. The ground is known to retain moisture underneath, which makes it difficult for the pitch to break up even though it is uncharacteristically hot - mid-30s - for a February in Pune.
Despite the heat, despite the desolate location, which might result in small numbers at the Test, Salgaoncar loves the ground. "I spend eight hours a day here," he says. "This ground has taken my burden more than even my family."
You ask him if he feels like helping his lot, the fast bowlers, out with the pitch he makes because his generation of fast bowlers had no support. Salgaoncar says, "Those who have it in their shoulder will make batsmen run on this pitch."