In April 2006, India and Pakistan had played two ODIs at Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi. It was for the first time the stadium had hosted an international fixture between two ICC Full Member countries. Rahul Dravid captained India, while MS Dhoni was a callow wicket-keeper, in the process of cementing his place at top-level cricket. More significantly though, those two matches turned out to be India’s last cricket tour in the UAE. Sharjah, the hub of India-Pakistan limited-overs cricket in 1980s and 1990s, had already been ostracised by the BCCI in the wake of the Cronje-gate at the turn of the century.
The BCCI has removed the UAE from its blacklist by agreeing to host this edition of the Asia Cup here. The first 20 matches of the IPL 2014 that had been hosted in this part of the world because of the general elections in India was an overture. But this is international cricket and the redemption is complete.
MS Dhoni remains the sole connection between a bygone era and the current crop. Apart from him no one in this Indian team has played cricket in the ‘desert’. Even at 37, though, and in the twilight of a glorious career, Dhoni remains the box office from the fans’ perspective. As India hit the nets for the first time in Dubai on Friday, the former captain was the biggest attraction for the autograph hunters and selfie-mongers. From the cricketing point of view, it was sort of an unusual Indian net session.
The practice session sans the coaching staff provided the oddity. Ravi Shastri and his assistants haven’t yet arrived here after the England tour. The players, too, who had been part of the Test series, would come on Sunday. So at the ICC Academy grounds today, the Indian playing contingent was left with only two fast bowlers from the chosen squad of 16. Bhuvneshwar Kumar put in a shift on his return to the Team India fold after recovering from a back injury, while the newcomer, Khaleel Ahmed, went full tilt, ignoring the mid-afternoon Dubai heat. The weather app showed 37 degrees Celsius, but out in the open it was a furnace-like condition.
The BCCI pre-empted the shortage and wisely sent five net bowlers. Siddarth Kaul, Avesh Khan and Prasidh Krishna made up for the fast bowling void, while Shahbaz Nadeem and Mayank Markande bowled left-arm spin and leg-spin respectively. Kaul was part of the Indian ODI squad in England and played two matches. He also had a decent workout with India B in the Quadrangular Series in Bangalore and Alur. Khan has had been on the fringes and played for Board President’s XI against South Africa A last month. Krishna, the find of the last IPL, too, has been steadily rising through the ranks. He toured England with India A before featuring in the Quadrangular Series at home. Their presence in the senior team nets today, and the way they bowled, further attested the excess of fast bowling riches in Indian cricket.
Spotlight on Rohit
But once the tournament starts, Rohit Sharma will be in the spotlight. Virat Kohli’s absence makes India’s stand-in captain the most vital player for his team, batting-wise. Rohit was a little off the mark, when he said this would be his first full series as captain. He led India in the Nidahas Trophy in Sri Lanka also earlier this year. But to be fair to him, that was a T20 tournament. The Asia Cup would be his initiation as an ODI captain for a full series, albeit as a stopgap.
Rohit had two hundreds in England in white-ball cricket – 100 not out in the third T20 international at Bristol followed by 137 not out in the first ODI at Nottingham. He fell cheaply in the next two ODIs at Lord’s and Leeds, and India lost the three-match series 2-1. India are the masters of white-ball cricket, which made the series defeat in England a rarity. They would like to get back to winning ways at the soonest. It won’t be easy, with Pakistan part of the roster. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, too, have the wherewithal to throw up surprises.
India’s lack of experience in these conditions could be a factor. UAE, on the other hand, is Pakistan’s adopted home since 2009. But as the Dubai International Stadium head curator Toby Lumsden said, the pitches are expected to be batting-friendly. “Over the summer we have had a chance to construct two brand new pitches for the stadium, due to our high work load and demanding cricket schedule. Traditionally first innings scores have been 260, hopefully we can build on that and make them a little higher pushing for about 270, but it is difficult during this time of year in September.”
The intriguing part of this venue is that conditions can change throughout the day. Also, dew makes its presence felt in the evening. Rohit, meanwhile, is waiting for the arrival of the remaining members of the squad. “Just seven-eight of us right now. Once everyone gets together, we know what we need to do. We have won some ODI tournaments abroad,” he said, refusing to consider this tournament as a preparation for the next year’s World Cup. “The World Cup is still too far ahead, but this tournament will give us an opportunity to know the other teams’ strengths and weaknesses.”