Scene set for first battle of the Indian summer
England and India begin their Test series next week at Lord's, but there will be an early taste of what's on offer when the tourists play their three-day match against Somerset. And that's not just because it will be a chance to see MS Dhoni's team, but because it is set to be round one of Andrew Strauss versus Zaheer Khan.
It's not a contest that will decide the series - England are good enough to win without Strauss's runs and India have other bowlers besides Zaheer - but it's an intriguing head-to-head. Strauss has issues with left-arm quicks and Zaheer is the best in the business. For both players Taunton is important; Strauss ideally needs a decent score before the Test series and Zaheer needs miles in his legs having not played since the IPL.
The two sides are, of course, seeing the opportunity very differently. Strauss is playing down the significance of the outing, suggesting he would need it even if he had scored plenty of runs against Sri Lanka rather than the 27 he managed in four innings, but there was a hint from Duncan Fletcher that India see it as a chance to make an early mark.
"If he gets out early there's a chance we'll have something over him, but I believe our bowlers are pretty confident at the moment even if he does get runs," Fletcher said. "You are allowed to get runs at some stage. From our point of view we have to be careful that there are other batsmen in that side we need to look at. The problem really lies with Straussy, if he feels he has a problem it's more a concern for him than us."
MS Dhoni, meanwhile, had a wry grin when asked about his leading bowler against the England captain. "One thing for sure I won't be thinking much about Zaheer versus Strauss," he said. "Strauss will be batting and Zaheer bowling. It's good practice for both of them and we'll try to get the most we can out of this game because Zaheer hasn't been bowling for a while. Records don't play a big role."
Strauss, who spent part of the afternoon facing a bowling machine on the outfield, insists that what happens over the next three days won't have a major bearing on the series. Since the end of the Sri Lanka Tests he has played one innings for Middlesex where he made 2 against Gloucestershire and has since been restricted to net sessions.
"It's not a gamble," he said. "I've played no cricket for three weeks so it was crucial for me to be able to play some cricket this week. I don't think I've ever taken part in a Test match having not played cricket for three weeks beforehand.
"Thankfully this opportunity came up otherwise I would be probably be playing a second team game for Middlesex somewhere. What I do this week is not going to have a dramatic effect on the Test series but it will be nice to get some runs to feel confident, see a lot of their bowling and move to Lord's in a good frame of mind."
Strauss's form - and his performance against Zaheer - is just one of many potential themes that will emerge over the next five weeks, which is what makes for such an enticing prospect. It was confirmed on Thursday that if England win the series by two clear Tests they will overtake India and secure the No. 1 spot for the first time.
It has been the stated ambition of the Strauss-Flower regime to propel England to the top but now that it's within touching distance the captain doesn't want minds to wander away from the smaller goal of each Test match.
"It's possible to jump up rankings and fall back over a couple of games," Strauss said. "I think what we're looking at is to become No.1, but a little more sustained than that. It would be great if we can achieve this goal this summer. But I wouldn't say the hard work would be done then. It's one thing being No.1 in the world but quite another to be acknowledged all round as No.1 in the world."
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo