Duncan Fletcher stationed himself behind the nets in one corner of the MCC Cricket Academy ground at Lord’s, keeping one eye on Stuart Binny and another on Ajinka Rahane batting on adjacent strips.
At the other end of the ground Trevor Penney took slip-fielding classes, where Suresh Raina dropped the first edge that came his way. And among those skipping Wednesday’s practice session were MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli.
If you were off newspapers, TV or social media for the last three days, this sight would have come across to you as a usual India training session. But on the back of the upheavals in the team set-up since the Oval Test ended prematurely on Sunday, a usual practice session is a most unusual thing.
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Adding to the intrigue was Ravi Shastri’s (the side’s newly appointed boss) absence. It could be argued that it was a practice session for a practice match (versus Middlesex on Saturday) and the series opener is still four days away. Therefore it perhaps didn’t merit a full blooded, all-hands-on-deck kind of training session.
It could further be reasoned that fifty-over cricket, though technically the same ball-game, is certainly played on a different ballpark. This is India’s territory, no matter where they are playing. Even here in England — especially in England, for here they have won big and won often. Their last major triumph came on these shores when they lifted the Champions Trophy at Edgbaston, Birmingham, last June.
Difference a year makes
Back then, India looked on track to retain the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, which was then two years away. But since their memorable duel in the rain with England (though that was essentially a T20), the perception that India play better in ODIs than they do in Tests has been challenged.
They have lost two away series, both comprehensively in South Africa late last year and then in New Zealand. They also lost the Asia Cup to Pakistan in more favorable environs of Bangladesh (though, it could be argued that the conditions favored Pakistan as well). The point is this: India have few results since the Champions Trophy to back their reputation of the big silverback gorilla of the 50-overs format.
What makes it even harder for Dhoni & Co is the morale-sapping losses in the Tests and the massive momentum shift in England’s favour. It’s not quite unlike how it was during the last tour of England in 2011. Then as now, they came into the limited-overs series on the back of debilitating Test defeats. They did put up a fight in the ODIs, but still remained winless.
To pick themselves up, therefore, will need a monumental effort. Only, there was no evidence of it during the nets session on Wednesday.
The opening remarks
The sub-genre of landing reports/features in which a reporter uses the first impressions of the country he is visiting to connect with the larger narrative usually has a recurring character in the immigration officer. That man/woman in the 5 x 5 cubicle is the first in first impressions, and due to the inherent cynicism that his job necessitates often the foremost too.
Therefore, he is here too, leaning forward on the desk with his eye glued to the magnifying glass and face buried in my passport. “I believe your team was soundly thrashed in the Test matches. What are their chances in the One-dayers and the T20,” the back of the balding head asks.“Chances are good,” I reply, instantly noting the utter lack of conviction in my statement.
“The last time the Indian cricketers were here to play the shorter format, they won the Champions Trophy,” I say. “And they beat England in the final,” I rub it in.
The officer leans back. He doesn’t look supremely convinced — with the worn out travel document or the reply. Nevertheless, he stamps the passport and then seals the argument. “I believe you had also won a Test match the last time you were here in London,” a month ago.