More questions than answers for India
The Oval on a sunny day can be a welcoming place to be. There is a general air of friendliness around. It seems within reach of travellers. Unlike Lord's, its brow is not high. You can enter from any gate. It used to be a quick pitch but has now become slow. Often two spinners can play here. There is no side ground so the practice pitches are on the main square, which means abrasiveness and reverse swing. Not when it rains, though. It can be cold, dank, and prompt people to call it ugly.
It rained when India arrived for their pre-Test training. Rain has not been India's friend on this trip. It has brought India reminders of missed opportunities. After Old Trafford, which India lost in three days, it rained for a day and a half, telling them if they had batted for another hour, they might well have saved the match. Here, India had three possible days of training before the Oval Test. The team missed one together as a unit, MS Dhoni stayed away from the second. He went to a firing range instead. And it rained the only time India's No. 6 might have got to bat before the Test.
The Oval usually hosts the last Test of a series, bringing a general wistfulness which is compounded on rainy days. If you are trailing after having led in the series, like India are, you tend to look back more than ahead. Did we give it our all? Did we get desperate enough? Did we overstep any lines? Did we under-step any? What else could have we done? You don't want to leave with a feeling you could have done things differently.
Dhoni is not likely to think about all that. He says he likes to stay in the moment. Being able to draw a Test each in South Africa and New Zealand, he says, was a step in the right direction. A five-match series is foreign territory for every player in this team, so it is natural that that one win at Lord's might be considered another step in the right direction. Even after Old Trafford he said he was happy with the team's progress. Hopefully that is just for a feel-good façade for the public. For there have been problems of technique, of temperament, and of strategy that have led to this stage.
Not enough for desperation, says Dhoni. The openers are going to remain even though India have yet to add 50 for the first wicket since the start of South Africa tour late last year. "We will have to see whether that [extra] middle-order batsman has really contributed," Dhoni said. "We have played quite a few matches with five bowlers, which means he hasn't got much opportunity so all of a sudden in a big game to come with an application like that will have its own consequences.
"The big factor in not having big opening partnerships is that you expose the No. 3 batsman, irrespective of whether No. 1 or 2 gets out. And [Cheteshwar] Pujara has to face that pressure. He is always batting close to the third, fourth or fifth over, so he gets more pressure. But he is also getting more chances of facing the challenges in such conditions so it will only improve him."
The process continues to remain more important than results. "It's never that the result is more important than the process," Dhoni said. "It is always the process that will be the key because it puts less pressure on the team. As you said, rightly, it is an important Test match but at the same time still it is the breaking up of the sessions that matters because that will give us an advantage. So we will still be looking more into the process than the result."
India have chosen to trust what they have been doing over the Investec series. They will be pleased Ishant Sharma is fit. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, though, has been bowled into the ground. Stuart Binny could come in amid talks of a damp pitch, but India surely have to question this policy of playing a bits-and-pieces player. In three of the four Tests, India have gone in with five "bowlers" but at least one of them has always been neglected.
It was a bold move, but bits-and-pieces is not working. Yet, either Binny or Ravindra Jadeja are all set to play. An outsider might legitimately ask the question: do they care enough to revisit and reassess their plans and their openers, or put in extra hard work in the nets, or is one Test win - a significant improvement on previous tours - satisfying enough for them?
As India waited in vain for the rain to stop - some of them had a hit in the indoor nets - Ramesh Mane, their masseur and general good old man in the team, was seen sticking images of gods and chants in the dressing room. He always does that, and also plays devotional music before the start of matches. There is not much in his hands, though, apart from the massages. Hopefully the rest of the team, who have a more direct bearing on the result, are not thinking like him.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo