Indian batsmen waste opportunity
Indians 327 for 7 (Abhinav 113 retd, Laxman 49, Mishra 48*) v Northants
On a tour where India's cup has not exactly run over, a century from Abhinav Mukund in the two-day practice match against Northampton could have been a solution to a problem. All it is now is yet another nagging poser as the third Test at Edgbaston nears.
India ended the day at 327 for seven, after the loss of two quick wickets after tea that took some of the air out of their innings and put Abhinav's century into perspective.
Abhinav is not the stereotypical left-hander whose dip in scores is offset by his flair or style. His first five Tests have been played on demanding wickets in the West Indies and England, fiery baptisms for all batsmen, never mind openers. Today Abhinav saw the first signs of daylight in weeks at No. 3, largely against a second-string county attack, and was alert enough to cash in.
Unfortunately, the other batsmen who could have done with much-needed time in the middle were unable to do so. Gautam Gambhir's elbow put in nearly 90 minutes of work against the new ball and a disciplined Northants attack before falling for 18. The two middle-order men who needed a strong dose of confident batting, Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni, did not have the day they were hoping for either.
Yet the irony is that Abhinav will not be an instant pick for Birmingham, despite the resolution he showed in his testy second innings in Nottingham and his smart batting today. His runs came at a good pace; the seamers were attacked when their width and length demanded it. He was secure on his backfoot off the quicker men and, nearing his 100, feasted on the spinner. The century came with a single to mid-on and was celebrated fervently, Abhinav driving his arms aloft and pulling off his helmet.
His 132-run third wicket partnership with VVS Laxman came off 26 overs and upped the tempo of the innings. Had Laxman been rested for this game, like Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar were, it would have been understandable, but the crowd would have been deprived of some entertainment. Under a clear, sunny sky, Laxman cut and drove and had the crowd enjoying his private carnival. He had whistled to 49 before a pull so ugly it could have belonged to his nightmare ended up in square leg's hands.
Of the bowling, only medium pacer Lee Daggett has played a considerable amount of first-class cricket this season - nine out of 11 County Championship matches. He was the most economical of the bowlers but it was Luke Evans who picked up the two wickets that put a crimp into India's plans just after tea.
First Dhoni was left indecisively prodding at one that climbed just a bit, sending the Indian captain back for two. Nine balls later it was Raina's turn. In his innings of 33, he had been given a few short-but-not-very-threatening deliveries and had played some attractive strokes against spinner Paul Best. But the four consecutive boundaries off the slow left-armer on loan from Warwickshire were wiped from memory by his dismissal. Just after tea, a loose half-pull, half upper-cut to a short and wide ball was nicked through to the keeper. At 237 for 5, the tail had come into play. The next two wickets did put on 90 but that wasn't the point of today's exercise. The lone benefit - if Amit Mishra, unbeaten on 48, is to play in Birmingham - is that at least he would have had some batting practice.
The most anticipated of the India batsmen today was, of course, Virender Sehwag, who cracked open his season with a rapier cut off his first ball he faced. The crowd, instantly roused, cleared their throats but the shot fetched but a single. Sehwag then spent half an hour in the middle on a wicket, which while fresh and responsive to the new ball, was far from monstrous. He faced 25 balls, leaving plenty judiciously alone.
Beaten twice by the opening bowler Dave Burton, who does not feature in the Northants first XI, he lashed him for his lone boundary through the covers. Burton then got one to jag back and Sehwag was gone, having spent much less time at the crease than he would have liked before he plays his first Test in eight months next week. Yet, no one should be running to the bookmakers sprinkled all over England's high streets to put money on today's innings effecting Sehwag's frame of mind before the game in Edgbaston.
Practice matches are never thought to be the true Test of a team's ability or capacity to raise their game. But after two straight Test defeats, Dhoni's team needed more than what they were able to give on Friday. By this match's singular, somewhat flexible format, India have a maximum of ten overs of batting left on Saturday, though not enough batsmen who could make the most of it.
After play ended, Zaheer Khan took to the field with bowling coach Eric Simons and physio Ashish Kaushik in attendance and bowled off his full run up for the first time since Lord's. By a rough estimate, Zaheer bowled about five overs and did not appear to be in any discomfort either in his run up or delivery. It is his performance tomorrow that will be watched, as Sehwag's was today.
A goodly crowd filled in the small, almost intimate ground ringed by homes whose back gardens may share a wall with the cricket. A spectator with a megaphone blared out Hindi film tunes from his mobile phone, the song snatches going from nostalgia to kitsch. Right at the end they came accompanied by a stern query to the departing captain of India.
"Dhoni, what was that?" It is a question India can ask some of its middle order about their day out with the bat today.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo