India hint at five-bowler strategy
India's preparation for the start of this England tour reached its final stage when they returned to the field three days before the Trent Bridge Test. Having played two - albeit low intensity - three-day tour games, India took a two-day break from cricket activity, and made their first visit to Trent Bridge on Sunday. This is when they like to pick up intensity; they trained for close to four hours with almost all of their 18 players getting a bowl or a hit, and there might have been a hint that they are considering playing an extra bowler.
India don't usually like to bat MS Dhoni at No. 6 when away from home, and it can be hazardous to read too much into what happens at the nets, but it seems they haven't ruled out the possibility of giving Stuart Binny a debut at the expense of Rohit Sharma.
After the basic warm-up drills and a short game of football, the first-choice seamers - Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma - were sent to face the bowling machine while the batsmen came out to bat in the main nets - where Binny bowled for a longish duration - in what appeared to be their batting order. Shikhar Dhawan and M Vijay first, followed by Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. Rohit, meanwhile, didn't begin padding up and worked with the strength and conditioning coach instead. Ajinkya Rahane moved into the main nets as Pujara went to face throwdowns.
Kohli's exit brought MS Dhoni into the main nets, which usually might not mean anything, except that everything else followed a certain symmetry. Ravindra Jadeja batted in the main nets next, followed by Binny. Until then 11 players had been part of the main action, and 10 of them were definite starters for the first Test. Binny can't be ruled out as the 11th.
Rohit and Gautam Gambhir did get to bat, but by the time they came into the main nets the main bowlers had either finished or were at the end of their spells. It seemed to be a continuation from the second tour game, played against Derbyshire last week. Binny bowled nine and six overs in the two innings there, and batted at No. 7 in the first innings for a quick and unbeaten 81. Rohit didn't bat in the first innings, and India only batted 18 overs after he came out in the second.
The indication from the team is that they are keeping their options open. The team's concern is that they have struggled to take 20 wickets, which they want to address. If the pitch retains its straw-like colour, and looks to be good for batting, there is a good chance they might take that risk. If the weather remains dry and they see possibility for more spin, R Ashwin stands an outside chance too, because as batsmen Binny and Ashwin are on same plane.
Binny is a military-medium bowler who is at his most effective in conditions that assist seam bowling, like he was when taking six wickets in an ODI on a damp pitch against Bangladesh. Trent Bridge is arguably the most bowler-friendly Test venue in England today. He, or more precisely a seaming allrounder, was a demand made by the team management keeping the conditions in mind. They had been desperate to get Irfan Pathan fit, but he had hardly played any first-class cricket over the last season.
If India do go in with five bowlers, it will be an extraordinary move. Dhoni has never batted at No. 6 outside Asia. The last time India played five bowlers was against Australia at home, in 2012-13, and you'll struggle to find instances of India playing with five batsmen outside the subcontinent. Considering how bold and unprecedented a move it might be, it will need due thought and care, which is what - eventually - all the activity over the last week might turn out to be. One thing is for sure, though: India are considering the idea, and five bowlers remains a possibility.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo