History of comebacks offers India hope
As MS Dhoni and his not so merrie men made their way on to the field at Trent Bridge, all comments about India's pathologically slow start to overseas tours was being given symbolic affirmation. The white wooden frame of the visitors' dressing room was being painted to ensure that Nottingham's beautiful, cumulus cloud of a cricket ground would actually be ready in time for Friday's storm and fury.
India must find a way to be ready too, and only the wettest of blankets will believe the series is already over. Just like 'mental disintegration' was part of the Australian template, the ability to absorb and respond to shock or setback is India's. It has become a part of their DNA in the last decade, fundamental to their climb up the Test rankings and their particularly good performances in the last two tours of England.
Nine years ago, India had lost the first Test at Lord's and Sourav Ganguly, their unperturbed captain at the time, met Indians on the street who mournfully told him they were going to be returning home. "Why so soon? Stick on, we're going to level the series." A draw was eked out in the second Test at Trent Bridge, and victory arrived in Headingley. India batted first in bad-tempered weather, on a green wicket and piled up a big score to set up the win. In 2007, India were rescued by the rain at Lord's but came to Nottingham and found both jelly beans and Zaheer Khan's swing. The match and the series was eventually won.
Lord's 2011 is now lost, England are rampant and India are left with their totem Zaheer trying to race back into the contest. If the state of a team's best players is ever meant to imply a squad's comfort zone, India are well out of it. They must deal with a set of circumstances that may sound like the partnership of doom and gloom. They must find a way to transform it into the spark plugs that can turn their engine on.
The last decade in England constantly offers them patterns. The success of the opening combination in 2007 was marked down as one of the central pillars of India's first series win in England since 1986. It was not the result of India's most settled opening pair - Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Sehwag had been dropped from the team following a train-wreck of a 2007 World Cup and Gambhir was not yet a gleam in the selectors' eyes. India opened with Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik, who averaged 53.67 per stand in 2007 and produced the first century opening stand for India in England since 1979. In 2002, it was opener-allrounder Sanjay Bangar's survival with Rahul Dravid in Headingley that set up the first Test win in England in 16 years.
So when rookie opener Abhinav Mukund turns up to bat in India's first innings, it will not be surprising if he carries neither baggage nor reservations. His view from the inside could be construed as just the circulation of PR spin; it is more a pointer to how the Indians choose to handle what is on their plate. India will regroup after Lord's, Abhinav said with complete composure, because of what it had taken them to become World No. 1. "We have conquered a lot of challenges on the way here," he said. "A lot of the players are experienced enough and have played in these conditions. We have come here to take up the challenges and will definitely give it a good fight."
When Abhinav and his partner Gautam Gambhir set off in Nottingham's most English of conditions, they would do well to think less of what the wicket holds than of what one man made of it. Sehwag's absence for the first two Tests is seen as one of India's biggest woes, but the two left-hand openers should keep in mind that this is where he scored his first Test century as a makeshift opener before going on to become a great of the modern game.
Abhinav answered a question about being a replacement for Sehwag by speaking slowly and clearly. "First of all, if you are looking at me as one of the persons to replace someone like Sehwag ... it's going to be big boots to fill ... I don't want to replace Sehwag or play like he does, because it's not possible. I just want to go out there and play like I know and if it comes off, it's good for the team. Any team requires a start from their openers, I don't think it's anything new."
Zaheer's possible absence from this Test as well would not, Abhinav said, mean a toothless bowling line-up. "It's not that we have a depleted attack, but when you lose a fast bowler in the game, it's a completely different scenario." India's quick bowling options on offer, he believed, were more than adequate, "Zaheer has been our strike bowler for a long time, but I think Ishant Sharma has being bowling really well too. He was Man of the Series in the West Indies, Praveen Kumar has taken five wickets and Sreesanth is waiting in the wings."
Sreesanth's arrival on the field of play could immediately signal the advent of another tussle between his bowling skill and his love for performance art. However, if he and his more reasoned team-mates live up to their reputation for bouncing back, Nottingham could once again become the venue where the slow start gives way to series-turning momentum.
Rahul Dravid, well-schooled in the art of the turnaround, was given a break from the nets this afternoon. The Indians finished their practice with Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh having a bat, their shots heading towards the painters on the scaffolding. One of the workmen called out to the other wondering whether they were ever going to get their job completed. The men going to occupy the balcony they were painting would have told them not to worry and that the 'well begun is half done' philosophy is over-rated. All that matters at the end is the finished product. Abhinav said, "Obviously we were all disappointed. We do not want to look back. We'll take the positives and move on... It is a four-match series."
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo