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It is a battle for survival for Alastair Cook while a test of sustenance for the Indians. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the two camps on the eve of the Third Test at Ageas Bowl.
The Bowl that follows Rose or — Ageas after the sponsorship deal – is borne out by the setting. The ground is unlike any other, scooped out of earth in the middle of nowhere. It is a flat green expanse with the overlooking pavilion moulded in the cast of the Mound Stand at Lord’s. Not too many years ago, the playing area was just a stretch of land where sheep grazed and once in a while, the odd man walked through, always headed for some destination, seldom tarrying to wait and watch. Today it is a stadium nearly unreal in its scenic environment, an amphitheatre where modern stands rest within the primitive inclination around the arena in concentric circles.
The sun beats down, baking the pitch, with humidity to boot, rendering an almost tropical feel to this nook in the southwest corner of England. The trees around the stadium are deceptively green, but the sultry air is reflected more in the bare façade of concrete, cement and steel that stare at us from the south-eastern corner of the ground still under construction.
Seasoned pressmen sweat as they assemble in the indoor cricket school on the first floor of the pavilion for the press conference. Scyld Berry and Simon Wilde bowl a few balls at the indoor nets, before it becomes too hot to carry on. It is easier to sit and speculate. Six former captains have already asked for Alastair Cook’s head — Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton, Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Botham and Geoff Boycott. Some wag among the scribes says that WG Grace said so as well, and communicated the same to those ghosts at the team hotel.
Cook himself seems tired of answering the same questions over and over in the press conferences. He needs runs, he knows it, his team knows it, all of England know it. There is nothing new to say. He repeats he is hitting the ball well, but no one will believe him unless his promises turn into scores in the middle. He repeats that the situation is tough, one of the worst phases of his career, but he hopes to come through it as a cricketer and a person. One almost feels his pain, as he repeats the by now hackneyed, often mouthed words. The only positive statement is perhaps that Stuart Broad has recovered and will play.
MS Dhoni comes in simmering with quiet rage, under his unflappable exterior. He has not liked the verdict of Level One offence against Ravindra Jadeja, and makes his points without ambiguity. During the rest of the session, he is noncommittal — about the team, the strategy. It will depend on the situation, on the pitch, the conditions. The team composition may change even though, India has been successful — even if you are doing well, others are striving to catch up with you. Being one up in the series, according to the captain, is not really a major thing in a five-Test series. Asked whether in a five-Test series the third Test is most crucial, he answered with the characteristic twinkle in his eye that he had never played a five-Test series, so he did not know. It is all a process and they will take things as the circumstances dictate. So whether Stuart Binny will be persisted with, whether Rohit Sharma or Ravichandran Ashwin will get look ins, remained unanswered.
The pitch is predicted to be bouncy, which may not be as alarming for the visitors as on earlier tours. It was Ishant Sharma, after all, who bounced England out at Lord’s, with some excellently directed barrage of short balls of the sort seldom witnessed in the history of Indian cricket. The short pitched stuff dealt by the English bowlers have mostly worked against them. India is one up, and although Dhoni is not keen to bank on the slim but significant advantage, one major factor is that the result stands at 1-0 without Virat Kohli firing in a big way. The general consensus is that a big score is due from the Indian big gun, if that does indeed take place and things will be tougher for England. However, similarly, Cook and Ian Bell can hardly be expected to fail forever.
On earlier tours, the Indian teams have been known to surrender early leads with remarkable alacrity in the very next Test match. However, this side has shown that it has neither the characteristics nor the baggage of the earlier teams we have been so long accustomed to watch.
It is to be seen whether England can strike back after going through one of the most dismal slumps in recent times. We also need to wait to find out whether the Indian bowlers will be able to sustain the excellent performance of Lord’s, and the batsmen the discipline.
It promises to be intriguing as the action gets underway in this most unique of venues.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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