India threaten to shed conservatism
People have by now stopped asking MS Dhoni the question. This team has always been dismissive of the idea when outside Asia. Five bowlers without having the luxury of a genuine allrounder means Dhoni has to bat at No. 6. Outside Asia it is a risk India have not been willing to take. Dhoni has never batted at No. 6 outside Asia, which sums up their reluctance to adventure even though they have consistently struggled to take 20 wickets when the ball is not turning or reverse-swinging.
To be fair to India and Dhoni, though, it is not something they have not thought of. Dhoni is known to have agonised over the lack of even a half-decent allrounder before he left for the South Africa tour. He is known to have conveyed to Irfan Pathan that he is desperate to have him fit for England, but Irfan could not get any first-class cricket under his belt. They have not advertised it, but there have been signs that Dhoni has been preparing for this tour in advance, a change in his leadership style.
Over in South Africa and New Zealand, India got themselves into winning situations twice, but ran out of gas. The quicks were bowling spells longer than they would have liked to, overs after the 40th and before the second new ball would become soft, and the fast bowlers would not be at their most intense when the new ball would be claimed. The team management made a special request for Karnataka allrounder Stuart Binny for the England tour, and Binny furthered his credentials with a six-for in an ODI in Bangladesh.
And now that people have stopped asking India about the possibility of a fifth bowler or a half-allrounder to shore up the bowling, India seem to have shed the conservatism. Binny is highly likely to make his Test debut on Wednesday. Even if he does not and India change their minds at the last moment, it is credit to India's pleasantly surprising boldness that they have systematically tried to explore the option.
Binny had spells of decent lengths in the warm-up game in Derby and batted ahead of Rohit Sharma, scoring 81 not out. Over in Nottingham he has been getting more attention from the team management than Rohit and R Ashwin while getting a few overs in before going in to bat at No. 8.
The feedback from the batsmen in the nets has been that Binny has been bowling well. The pitch here has grass, but it is straw-coloured. The new drainage system means there is not much moisture retained underneath the surface. The team feels confident enough to go in with just five specialist batsmen and Dhoni at No. 6. Dhoni would not say it in as many words, but there were enough indications in his press conference that Binny was good for a debut.
Asked if he was confident of batting at No. 6 outside Asia, Dhoni said: "Well I have to be. That's a crucial phase of the game where you can turn matches."
If India go ahead and play Binny, this will be a welcome move. Sometimes you have to change your methods when the results are refusing to change. Johannesburg and Wellington would have hurt India in the gut. Such glorious opportunities of overseas wins, but they did not have enough left to barge through the door once they had unlocked it. The message to India would have been that they need to get out of their comfort zone if they are to win away Tests.
A lot of India's solidness in Test cricket has been based on their batting, but most of their famous wins outside Asia since 2000 have been sealed by bowlers in low-scoring matches. They have not had that quality - at least not over two innings - since 2011.
It is not that Binny would have got you the wickets of Faf du Plessis and Brendon McCullum when Zaheer Khan could not. Binny is not that good a bowler. He is a steady medium-pacer who becomes effective when conditions are favourable, a bit like his father Roger. When India won at Headingley in 1986, Roger took five wickets in the first innings, and Chandrakant Pandit, playing as a specialist batsman, batted at No. 6. That side, though, had the luxury of Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri. This one doesn't.
Binny is not a big threat as a bowler, but it is his presence with 10 steady overs in the middle that is bound to help the other bowlers. Just telling the bowlers there is someone to bowl those dirty overs when they are recovering in time to take the new ball can make a huge difference. He is of course not the ideal choice. He would not make a Test side as a batsman or a bowler alone. He is neither a top-six batsman nor a frontline bowler. Sometimes you just have to go for the next-best.
"Rather than coming to press conferences and talking about not having a pace bowling all-rounder, it's better to try and utilise what we have," Dhoni said. "Stuart is someone who can bowl a bit and at the same time bat as well. If we can give him enough chances and groom him, then he can be someone who can do that job for us over the next six-eight months. He won't be as good as someone like Jacques Kallis but he can be someone who can bowl that 10 overs and bat a bit, so he has got the talent."
Binny is in the right place and at the right time. India are in the mood to take the risk, and he is fit, willing, eager, and has the potential to surprise. Didn't we ridicule them when Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher set about to turn Ravindra Jadeja into a Test player?
This move could of course bomb. As can any really. What is important here, though, is that India are willing to sacrifice the safety net of a No. 6 batsman in pursuance of a Test win, that Dhoni is ready to step up and take the extra responsibility of batting at No. 6, and that for once they have been planning for a tour well in advance. Under Dhoni India have never started a tour outside Asia with such intent. They might develop cold feet overnight, they might fail at this, and if it works it is not likely to make a huge tangible impact. However, it is better than losing the same old way over and over again.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo