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Sharda Ugra in Northampton
August 3, 2011
The Indians have nearly sold out their two-day practice match at the County Ground in Northampton on August 5 and 6, but they still won't be the town's biggest act this summer.
Like India's chances of a series victory in England that too has, in fact, come and gone.
On June 25, nearly 15,000 packed into an open-air Elton John concert, live from the outfield, at the venue where India will attempt to repair form and reputation this weekend. John was on his Rocket Man world tour and, among many of his other hits, he also sang "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." The Indians could well adopt it as their theme song when they take to the ground on Thursday after a thumping defeat in the Nottingham Test.
In what is an outside chance of a complete turnaround, India's own Rocket Man has finally turned up on the tour during which the sun has gone down fairly rapidly on India's No.1 Test ranking. Virender Sehwag's arrival in England on Wednesday coincided with the double-whammy that both Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh are out of the Test series, both injured during the Nottingham Test.
When, after the Lord's defeat, MS Dhoni said that all that could go wrong did go wrong during that Test match, he didn't know he was presenting himself as the ultimate optimist. Lord's was merely a prelude to the tailspin that was Nottingham.
It has been a downhill series: India's strike bowler pulled up with an injury in the first session of the first Test and their strike batsman has arrived at a time when the series can only be saved.
It is not a bad target for a counter-attacker like Sehwag to sink his teeth into. At the same time it could be just what Gautam Gambhir needs to feed off as he pushed for a return in time for Edgbaston a week from now.
The two-day practice match could be just the tonic India need, but only if its convalescing cricketers are recovering at the speed they need. Sehwag is coming cold off shoulder surgery, Gambhir off a still-swollen elbow while airlines now only let Zaheer onto a plane if his hamstring is strapped up in bubble wrap and marked fragile.
The Northampton County Cricket Club is promising a turn for the better for the visitors. Their hospitality and weather will be warm. Their pitch will be ... okay never mind. At least Zaheer has also been promised a better return to Northampton than when he played for Worcestershire in 2006. The track has changed from its subcontinental avatar to a green but they say generous seamer.
Deputy head groundsman Paul Taylor says it is far from Nottingham redux. Taylor was quick to point out that the grass cover was "different to Nottingham's. It has a more even covering, there won't be tufts of grass." Northants Cricket CEO Mark Tagg pointed out that the county ground had received ECB commendations for the quality of their pitches following a complete overhaul in the middle of the last decade. Taylor says, "We used to have pitches rather like subcontinental tracks. Grassless, where on windy days you could see dust flying, which helped our spinners." That was the time Anil Kumble became the highest wicket-taker of the 1995 county season with 105 wickets for Northamptonshire, 64 at home, 41 away. Until recently, Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann turned out together for the county until 2005.
Over the last five years following renovation, however, the pitch has changed character and now suits the quicker men. The overseas players expected to turn out for the practice match over the weekend is left-arm swing man, Chaminda Vaas, so Zaheer will at least have good company. Taylor says, "This wicket is very different from what Zaheer would have experienced with Worcester. It did not carry through much then, but this is a wicket is now true." As far as the batsmen go, Taylor says that considering Northampton's own progress - they lead the Division 2 county table - the top batsmen have not really prospered but, "it is the Nos. 7 to 9 that are averaging 55, I would say if you get in, you can score very quickly indeed."
At Lord's and Nottingham, India's new generation batsmen have struggled precisely in that simple skill: getting in and staying there. There is however something they must leave behind, according to former captain Sourav Ganguly: the debris from the past two weeks. When he was asked by TV channel Headlines Today what he would have said to his players if he were still captain, Ganguly said, "Get away from the game in the next two days. Every individual player, get away from the team. Take a walk down the road, have a dinner on your own and evaluate, where do I stand? How have I done in this series, where can I get better?... Talk to yourself and say how can I get better? Because that's the only way the team can get better."
Ganguly's is sound advice but unlike Nottingham, where the team lived in the city centre, in Northampton the team hotel is closer to a motorway out of town and a golf course. Naturally, there were few sightings of solitary Indian players walking around in deep introspection on Wednesday evening. There's a far better chance that they took turns in walking up to Sehwag and saying by God, it was good to be seeing him again.
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