En route to Alur, across the sprawling “NICE” expressway that leads you to Tumkur, there is a banner on which is painted a growling leopard’s head. The caption reads: “Caution. Don’t hit leopards.” Given the speed at which the generally vehicles zip off, the pictorial warning goes rarely noticed, but suddenly there is a feeling that you are treading into sort of sinister wilderness. Which is actually not the case, as apart from a few green splashes of groovy canopies, steep slopes and standalone boulders, there is nothing remotely suggestive of anything wild or bestial. Instead, you could see picnic spreads and selfie-obsessed teens.
The town, though, is a tangle of small streets and narrow service roads that flank the highway. One of those service roads take you to the gates of the KSCA Cricket Complex, where a bunch of kids are imploring, some with miniature bats in tow, the snarly guards to let them in. Smart ones smuggled themselves in through the unfenced backside of the stadium. Some were chased away by a couple of policemen. Smarter ones embraced the informal photographers’ enclosure, feigning themselves as one of the crew.
The background of the ground doesn’t make for vivid postcards. But there is something quaint about it, with trees lining the boundaries and the general absence of concrete structures, barring the platinum jubilee pavilion and a couple of hydraulic land excavators. The scoreboard is so miniature that from a distance it looks like an open, mini refrigerator. Around 10.30, Anil Kumble and his corps lumbered onto the pitch. The coach straightaway went about measuring the run-up of his fast bowlers before he had a huddled chat with Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, all three intensively listening to the coach’s counsel. Virat Kohli then joined them, setting the 13-man field (occasionally 14, when Kumble joined them). Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay trooped in. And to give it serious-match feel, there were two umpires as well.
The idea was to simulate a Test match situation, albeit with a few tweaks. Like every batsman had to be dismissed twice, an over will be split among three different bowlers with three different balls. At a time only the fast bowlers will bowl at them. The three spinners would then take over. The batsmen had to bat the entire 90 overs, while the bowlers had to pluck out 20 wickets. A kind of compressed Test match.
The instructions were clear — probe Shikhar Dhawan with full, teasing deliveries outside the off-stump. To Murali Vijay, the length was slightly shortened, and the trajectory a few more yards wide of the off-stump. The smattering of the grass meant the bowlers, especially Bhuvneshwar, bargained some purchase. Facing him on the surface was the perfect scenario for Dhawan, whose fallibility outside the off-side is much-storied, and due to which he has reduced his backlift. Whereas in the past his bat used to come down shoulder-high, now it doesn’t go up further than his waist. Consequently, there isn’t much of a follow-through either. This was evidenced when he crunched Ishant Sharma through the covers. The follow-through was negligible. “You might have noticed I used to keep a bat on the stumps in practice. I was checking where my backlift is coming from. The revamped technique, though, is purely experimental. “It’s just a checking thing, you check things over and over again to make sure that things are fine because technique is one thing where little change brings a huge impact. That’s what I have learnt with time, that I need to make sure my basic structure of my technique stays the same,” he elaborated.
You could also see his feet moving more across. Generally his front foot doesn’t cover the off stump, and hence the tendency to swish outside the off, not accounting for the away movement and falsely assuming there is enough width when there’s hardly any. This, on the other hand, has given him more assurance outside the off-stump. “Now I’m sure if it’s bowled outside off, I will leave the ball. I don’t know if you saw me in Sri Lanka — I didn’t play many off-side balls. Like I said, it is a journey,” he pointed out.
Still, Bhuvneshwar managed to induce an outside edge off him, snared in the slips. Meanwhile, Ishant had bowled Murali Vijay. Bhuvneshwar, in particular, was impressive and seemed to have added a couple more yards without compromising much on his natural gift of swing. You see his tauter physique and can correlate it with his increased pace. “To gain that pace, I have worked in the gym and I have been training a lot. But, you know, I never wanted to increase the pace intentionally, but I was working on and that increased. You know, when I started playing international cricket I was bowling in the 130s. When it comes to Tests, when I made my debut, I knew I need to increase my pace to play Tests. In ODI, you can somehow survive with the swing and all, but when it comes to Tests, and the ball gets old you need pace. I’m not saying I will bowl 140+, but you need that pace which can really trouble the batsmen with the swing. Yes, I wanted to increase the pace, but not cost of swing,” he said.
Ishant, though mostly as sharp as he had been in Sri Lanka, had a Steve Harmison moment, when he misdirected a delivery to Virat Kohli standing at first slip. He immediately turned back, averting Kohli’s stare, but surely he must have heard the captain’s rebuke. Soon after, Kumble brought in the spin troika from the opposite end, and in their second lives, both openers batted with more freedom and enterprise, involuntarily glancing at the still scoreboard. Dhawan played one shot too many to be caught at slip, off a leading edge while attempting a flick off Ashwin, who was deliriously altering his flight. Vijay was adjudged run out, despite him having clearly made the crease. A bemused smile crossed his face, as though wondering what business the umpires had in a practice game, or rather an upgrade on an open net session, when he walked back and gestured to Kumble that he had clearly made his ground.
Jaddu upends Kohli
The Indian skipper walking into the middle was doubtlessly the most anticipated moment of the day. It came at the stroke of 12, though the sun was entirely obscured by the thick foam of dark clouds. With a brace of effortless drives, he signalled he was as much as in form as he had been throughout the year. We are on for some fun time, or so we thought. But as it turned out Jadeja was having some fun at the expense of Kohli. He varied his length so cleverly that he had Kohli guessed. Twice he induced top edges off him before he eventually miscued one to mid-off. Kohli tried to sort him out with enhanced aggression, but Jadeja again had his smarts over him. Kohli stepped down the track, Jadeja pulled his length a trifle back and pushed this ball faster than the previous one. Kohli missed it altogether and was stumped. An aberration or portent?
Post his exit, the motley crowd began to gradually disperse. The players retired for lunch. When they came back, the intensity too dropped a tad. The frontline bowlers were either resting or batting in a different net. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane had to make do with Stuart Binny, Shardul Thakur, Varun Aaron and Mohammed Shami. The batting policy had now changed to giving enough hit for all the batsmen, including the lower order. So 40-50 minutes, they paved way for the others. On as leisurely a day as this, you would imagine the intensity will droop as the day weaned away. But not with as involved a coach as Kumble. A particular image struck—sometime before lunch, Ishant was gesturing for water. None of them it seemed noticed him. And Kumble promptly jogged towards Ishant, juggling with two bottles in each hand.