As the Indians were having their first net session at the Oval, the pitch was left to bake under the soft sun. Next to the ‘more green, very less brown’ track, the Indians unpacked their kits while eyeing the 22-yards they would step on this Friday.
When pace all-rounder Stuart Binny padded up first, it seemed the colour of the playing surface was playing on the mind of the visiting team. That was not the case when the English turned up at the ground later in the day. They knew their backyard better.
Two of the three nets had spinners bowling to the English batsmen. The wicket-keeper was enjoying his date with Merlin, that’s what the bowling machine that turns the ball is called. England’s former part-time spinners, Moeen Ali, and present part-time spinner Joe Root, along with a left-arm spinner net bowler, would end up bowling long spells. Ian Bell and Gary Ballance took turns facing them, others were in queue.
So was India sold a lemon? Was the slow turning track dressed up to look like a pace-friendly surface? Maybe, by the end of the session the Indians would have got an idea about the true nature of the central square. Locals say that this is expected to be a slow track which is expected to aid the spinners on the last two days.
That makes a case for the Indians to stick with playing two spinners. The buzz is that the pitch lacks the kind of pace that was seen at Manchester. There will be bounce but the balls wouldn’t take off. Once the grass gets shaved, the mask will be off and the slowest track of this series would emerge.
Not repeating it again
It’s the kind of pitch that suits England perfectly. With the 2-1 lead and Ishant Sharma expected to return to the Indian team, they wouldn’t risk laying out a Lord’s kind of carpet which the Indian pacer loved. Five of Sharma’s seven wickets came off short balls.
Besides, Sharma will have by his side Varun Aaron, the 140 plus pacer who showed that he doesn’t mind aiming for the batsman’s ribs. He dismissed Ali with a big in-swinger but it was the sharp rising ball that had set him up. Later in the Test his ball went into Stuart Broad’s helmet visor. As blood dipped from the England No.9’s nose, Aaron had a reputation and India had found an England Achilles’ heel.
Joe Root too is aware the Indians would “go hard” at this weakness. “That (short ball) will be one area I’m sure a lot of the lads will be working on within their own games. We want to carry on the good work we’re doing, so we’ll be making sure in our practice we do everything we can to get our minds right for Friday,” he said on Wednesday.
Trust the English media to drag Ashes into all cricket discussion. What happens when England faces the likes of Mitchell Johnson? “It’s not really a massive concern on my part. Guys know where their games are, where they need to improve. If they think that’s an area, I’m sure they’ll work on it,” he replied. That rules out the fact that the 5th Test wouldn’t be treated as an outing to prepare for Australia.
The other reason for England preferring a less-pacy track at Oval will be the “Stuart Broad” situation. The injured England pacer was at the venue but didn’t bowl. The media waited for him to climb down the pavilion steps as Batman, his tweet said he was planning to wear a mask to protect his injury. The photographers were disappointed. No front page byline for them.
The official word from the dressing room was: “He didn’t train as planned but that doesn’t affect availability for Friday.” Soon there was a news flash that said Broad was on his way to see a specialist. The story was short-lived. Broad being present at Oval in flesh and blood was the clinching proof in the quick denial.
Since there was ambiguity over Broad’s match-readiness, the focus at the nets was on Steve Finn, the tall pacer who could be expected to extract bounce from the track. It wouldn’t be easy for the out-of-sorts bowler to hit the ground bouncing as he still looks like a “work in progress”. Before he started bowling at the batsmen, he hurled a few trial balls on the pitch closest to the boundary line. It was clear this wasn’t the bowler who troubled the Indians during the 2011 series. Nor did he look as good as Broad, the Man of the Match at Manchester.
There will be a couple of match day mysteries that will unfold on Friday and will have a huge impact on the match. Will Broad put on the mask, and will the pitch take it off?
MSD skips nets, opts for range
Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s absence at the nets at The Oval on Wednesday triggered speculation about the India skipper’s availability for the final Test starting on Friday. That was till the team’s media manager RN Baba clarified that he was taking a rest. Later reports suggested that Dhoni had gone to a shooting range. The Indian skipper is a weapon enthusiast and is known to visiting ranges even on tours.