After the warm-up drills and before the nets session, Team India, almost inadvertently, dropped a big hint about the playing XI for the fourth Test match. The injured Ishant Sharma had taken his position with a ball in hand at the end of his run-up and coach Duncan Fletcher had a bat over his shoulder. The two waited for the slip cordon to take shape next to wicketkeeper MS Dhoni. And that’s when the penny dropped for those who had been speculating the changes the side was expected make for the Old Trafford Test after the loss at Southampton.
Murali Vijay was the new ‘first slip’ while Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja took their places next to him. And after a while, Ravichandran Ashwin ran in to take his position as the fourth slip.
Slip catching has been India’s problem area in this series — Jadeja’s drop of Alastair Cook at Rose Bowl could have changed the outcome of the Test. That’s why an intense session with the men expected to man the the cordon on match day was mandatory. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Vijay, Rahane, Jadeja and Ashwin are all but confirmed for the next Test. And by the same logic, if Shikhar Dhawan was missing from the slips, it was easy to guess who would be on drinks duty.
The new-look cordon suggested a few more things. 1. Adding Jadeja and Ashwin to the squad that has the overworked Bhuvneshwar Kumar meant India were back to playing five bowlers. 2. Dhawan moving out of the slips, and the team, could see back-up opener Gautam Gambhir getting his first Test on this tour. 3. Ashwin’s entry could see the downsizing of the batting department and Rohit Sharma getting dropped once again. Though, there can be a counter to this third assumption. In case India go with a part-time opener and ask No.3 Cheteshwar Pujara or No.5 Ajinkya Rahane to pad up first, Rohit will survive the drop and Gambhir will continue to be on the sidelines.
The lack of good opening partnerships has resulted in Dhawan being under pressure to retain his place in the side. All this while his opening partner, Vijay, has looked the most comfortable of all Indian batsmen. Vijay has scored 364 runs and equally importantly has faced 924 balls. Dhawan’s corresponding numbers of 122 and 211 puts him in the danger zone.
Starting with his nothing stroke to a ball outside off-stump early in the tour game against Derbyshire and getting out caught behind to edging into the hands of Chris Jordan at slip off Moeen Ali, Dhawan’s dismissals have been on predictable lines. Four times in five innings, he has been caught behind. England’s pacers have mostly started with a leg-stump line to him and gradually move towards the off-stump, enticing him to play a loose stroke or hang his bat out.
Dhawan, who likes to run the ball down to third man or even steer through point or covers, hasn’t been able to survive the swing and accuracy of the English bowlers. Today at the nets, Dhawan, along with Rohit, didn’t face up to the top pacers since Gambhir and Ashwin were preferred over them. This was a further proof of the changes the Indians were to make in their batting and bowling departments.
Bhuvneshwar, guarded at nets on Monday, had a full training session. Football, fielding drills and a long spell at the nets showed that fears surrounding his swollen ankle are gradually fading. By his side was Mohammed Shami, who continued to be the most difficult bowler to face at nets. The two pace mainstays in Ishant Sharma’s absence had for company Varun Aaron and not Pankaj Singh, the debutant from the previous Test. Towards the end of the session, Varun padded up and walked to the indoor arena with Shami. It was a day when India, in their attempt to shuffle their cards, ended up showing their match-day hand too.