Will Northampton decide India's fate?
Northampton's Country Ground has been waiting for Virender Sehwag, and he arrived on Thursday for his first full session with the Indian team since the World Cup. His arrival has been awaited in these parts not merely by his team, or the fans who have promised to flock to the ground from across the Midlands, but by the county itself. Last year, Sehwag was signed up to play Twenty20 cricket for Northamptonshire but had his no-objection certificate from the BCCI revoked when the board decided to disallow their cricketers from playing county cricket on account of a heavy workload.
Those who turn up for the two-day practice match tomorrow between India and Northamptonshire will hope that the county will get a good look at the man who almost was one of their own and that the rest of the Indian team will be as effective as they can be.
The India players went into an optional practice session on Thursday, held at the indoor nets due to a constant drizzle that could also affect the practice match. The format of the two-day game will only be finalised on Friday, with the weather perhaps actually formalising the final order of play.
During the game, everyone will be on the lookout for any signs of what the mood is in the Indian camp. The Indians' performance could be indicative of whether the rest of their tour will feature mainly sunny days with cloudy intervals or will continue the way it has so far, with a heavy rain of injuries and poor form plaguing the team.
Going into Edgbaston, India will be stretching themselves carefully, like they did at optional practice today. Sehwag's return gives them the essential necessity of what has become a luxury on tour: an evenly spaced out batting line-up without its most experienced players crammed into the smallest of spaces, as Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar were at Trent Bridge. Everyone except Dravid, Laxman, Abhinav Mukund and Ishant Sharma was at the session, doing something or the other, either in the gym or the nets.
Sehwag got through his 20-minute session against net bowlers and throwdowns without any distress. His strokes had all their usual characteristics: balance, a straight bat and a free followthrough. There were no signs of scars from scalpel on shoulder. What power he is able to find and how much shock absorption there is on his shoulder is something only he knows.
The viewing gallery above Sehwag was dotted with reporters, TV crew, and fans who got past the gatekeepers. Everything Sehwag did was audible: the sound of his bat - half stainless-steel, half-rifle-shot - his conversation during the throwdowns, even the tunes he was whistling or humming. India needs Viru Lite and not merely his new, streamlined self, but the free spirit that resides in how he approaches every game. Even 0-2 down. He will not worry about how many runs he scores in Northampton, as long as he gets some time in the middle: the only runs that count are the ones he gets in Edgbaston.
Also in the nets were two men for whom this series has brought with it heavy ankle-weights: Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni. Over the first two Tests, Dhoni's Test batting and captaincy have been called into question; Raina, who was impressive in the West Indies, has been worked over by an incisive bowling attack in conditions that leave little room for technical error. Sehwag's presence may mask their weaknesses over the course of the next few weeks, but not perhaps in the long-term. So, Raina sought an extra session of short-ball throwdowns, while Dhoni tried to feel his way into some kind of form.
Meanwhile, Gautam Gambhir was ensuring he could freely move the elbow that had been hit while he was fielding at short-leg at Lord's, ruling him out of the second Test. Gambhir will be hoping to resume an opening pairing with Sehwag that not so long ago was being hailed as one of the best in India's history. If the two do play at Edgbaston, it will mean India will not have to cram their three most-experienced players - Dravid, Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar - into the top four like they were forced to at Trent Bridge.
By the time Zaheer Khan turned up, after even Amit Mishra and Praveen Kumar had finished their batting sessions, attention had wandered away from the Indian nets. Zaheer always walks around as if he is wearing spikes on thin ice; the word ginger is used more often in reference to his fitness than in Chinese takeaway menus. He moved slowly, but it is what he is able to do with a curtailed run-up and delivery stride that will matter.
If the dozen-or-so balls he bowled here are an indication, India's main strike bowler could be slowly warming up for Edgbaston. The run-up was just seven or eight paces but his action looked unimpaired. In what is expected to be an open-ended practice match, he could get in a few short bursts of bowling and see how the royal hamstring reacts.
Two-day games are meant to be friendly outings in a picnic-like atmosphere. The Northampton County Ground is small, compact and surrounded by red-brick homes, which four years ago, when India last toured England, may even have installed shatter-proof glass knowing that a team full of flash batsmen was stopping by. This year however the residents may decide to leave the windows open and set out their best china. The visiting team, they have heard, are under seige. Misfortune, like the ashen sky over Northampton, is raining down on India. No matter how well they start here, it will take them a week more to find out if they can acquire the finish they want.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo