India in England 2014 August 4, 2014

India's return to nets hints at changes

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India's first day on a cricket field since the loss at the Ageas Bowl, and what would have been a demoralising verdict for them in the James Anderson hearing, began with a longish huddle at Old Trafford on Monday afternoon. Arms around each other, regrouping after having taken a beating on the field, in the court, and - they certainly believe - in a corridor at Trent Bridge. At one point, fielding coach Trevor Penney could be seen speaking animatedly in the huddle. Others spoke too. Wonder if someone said, "Boys, how the hell do we take 20 wickets here?"

While what happened between Ravindra Jadeja and Anderson remains an issue, India will know you win Test matches by taking 20 wickets or playing teams led by Garry Sobers or Michael Clarke. India have done so only four times in their last 15 away Tests. On three of those four occasions, those 20 wickets have cost India more than their batsmen were able to score. The other successful instance was on this tour, at Lord's, but the two architects of that win - Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar - were out of action on the first day of India's pre-Test training.

During their customary pre-nets footballs game, both Ishant and Bhuvneshwar took up goalkeeping duties. Ishant has been ruled out of fourth Test, MS Dhoni has already said, but Bhuvneshwar, who had a swelling on his ankle, remains a matter of interest. When the nets began, Ishant took up umpiring duties, ironically because he is guilty of bowling more no-balls than most in the world today. Bhuvneshwar bowled a few deliveries gingerly, off a short run, and pulled out in five minutes or so.

Seen from outside, the signs cannot be good: the Test begins on Thursday. However, seeing how India called up replacement for Wriddhiman Saha but not an extra fast bowler - Umesh Yadav is available, for example - the educated guess would be that they are confident of his being fit in time for Old Trafford. That Ishant is still with the team, and that a replacement has not been called for, would mean they are hopeful of his return in time for the Oval Test. The team, however, will not say what the injuries are.

Even if Bhuvneshwar is fit for Old Trafford, India will need a much-improved performance from Mohammed Shami, who has taken five wickets at 73.20 apiece. His economy rate of 3.81, too, has been the worst among specialist bowlers. No specialist bowler's wickets or overs have cost more per unit in this series. However, Shami looked really good at the nets on Monday, bowling at a good pace, repeatedly beating specialist batsmen. M Vijay was hit high on the thigh pads often, Cheteshwar Pujara had his poles uprooted, and Shikhar Dhawan was squared up and beaten around off.

That might not be the only cause for concern for Dhawan, though. For the first time since India reached Nottingham, Gautam Gambhir had a hit pretty early on in the nets. It was a clear sign that Dhawan - after six failures - cannot take his place for granted. India have left open that option of bringing Gambhir in. Gambhir last played a Test for India in early 2012, in Nagpur against England.

Gambhir is not the only option India seem to have left open. R Ashwin, who in the eyes of the experts and public has become a better spinner with every passing day out of the Test team, was more active in the nets than usual. He had a decent bowl at the start, and also got a longish hit with the bat. If he does come in, as almost everyone has demanded by now, he will do so in place of either Jadeja, who looked ineffective at the Ageas Bowl, or Rohit Sharma. Ashwin's last Test was Johannesburg, where he bowled 42 wicketless overs, 36 of those in the second innings.

India have options, and they could prove you wrong, but in the absence of Ishant, this side does not look like one that will take 20 wickets for fewer runs than what their batsmen score. That is one reason that could make India think of stacking their batting up, and retain Rohit. Unless Dhoni looks to bowl that extra bowler for more than 10-12 overs, he will be better off with that specialist batsman at No. 6.

For the first time in the series, you could not tell from India's nets what combination and players they are looking to play. Gambhir and Dhawan netted next to each other. Ashwin and Jadeja bowled with each other. Rohit and Ashwin batted one after the other. Bhuvneshwar did not bowl. Varun Aaron and Pankaj Singh could not be ruled out. You could tell India were not in a desirable situation when it comes to picking the XI, but at least they were back on the field, and laughing and joking at the end of the session.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo