Big-name trio in small-town venue
There's someone honking madly behind your car. It's a police car. It doesn't want to haul you up. It doesn't have the flashing light - the cherry, if you will - on the top, or the siren, and wants to overtake. As it goes past you, the cops inside wave at you, asking you to let the vehicle behind go past you too. It's a bus owned by SRS Travels. All of which suggests there are cricketers inside. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are. Not Zaheer Khan, because he follows later in his own car. Another police car follows.
There is no indication these are Test cricketers travelling, which in India has to be weird for some of the occupants of this bus. No barricading, no wailing siren, no disallowing of other traffic on the road. We are in Shimoga in central Karnataka, which is 200 km from the nearest airport, Mangalore. The bus is taking the India A team to Jawaharlal Nehru National College of Engineering, which houses a tree-lined cricket ground with an outfield much better than Karnataka's main stadium, the Chinnaswamy in Bangalore. On Wednesday, they start the second game of the three-match "unofficial Test" series against West Indies A. They are down 1-0.
You wonder if along the way these three cricketers in particular - part of a sideshow away from the TV cameras and the big bucks of the Champions League T20 - feel a bit like Andre Agassi when he started his comeback from No. 141 in the world with obscure Challenger tournaments. "Like Bruce Springsteen playing at a corner bar," an official had commented when Agassi began the long road back playing for prize money of $7,200 in Burbank. His appearance fee back then, in 1997, used to be $200,000.
It's not that Shimoga is a bad place to be. It's usual small-town India. Zaheer and Sehwag grew up in small towns themselves. The ground is nice. It has a super sopper should it rain. The practice pitches have good bounce. There might not be a five-star hotel here, but the locals - not least the college students - are excited about the biggest match this city has hosted.
There is nothing much wrong about Shimoga, but you can't imagine any of the three coming here if they hadn't lost their place in the Indian team during the previous home season. An awful lot had gone wrong with the three of them. Sehwag hadn't scored a century out of Asia since January 2008. Gambhir hadn't scored one anywhere since January 2010. Zaheer, never one to be measured by five-fors, had perhaps seemed most emasculated: low on pace, missing menace, and struggling to move in the field.
If we carry on with the loose parallel between Shimoga and Burbank, going to France to train with Tim Exeter was Zaheer's equivalent of Agassi's running up and down the hills. Zaheer and Yuvraj Singh have described the rigorous training there as going to physical hell and back. Zaheer then went to former India trainer Adrian le Roux in South Africa. Yuvraj says people tell him he looks 10 years younger, while Zaheer looks distinctly lighter. At a time in Indian cricket when it is the easiest to be satisfied with less, Zaheer has listened to his professional pride and has sought to come back fit for the longest format.
Unlike on the eve of Test matches, Zaheer bowled in the nets here, starting off a two-step run, then bowling within himself, and then going full tilt. There was the usual visit to the massage table on the sidelines.
Zaheer will know that this time it wasn't just about his fitness, as has been the case throughout his career. This time he had become ineffective with the ball. India's most reliable bowler after Anil Kumble took just seven wickets in his last five Tests, the last of which featured 31 tame overs for one wicket, that of Matt Prior who was pushing for quick runs when batting with the tail. The fitness is at least visibly back, but he will have to show the skill and the endurance still exist.
While Zaheer seems to have changed his fitness levels, Sehwag is seeking a different sort of change. The message from the Challenger Trophy is clear: he wants to bat in the middle order - his original position - and the middle order is due a vacancy soon. He has come back leaner too, but not as much as Zaheer. His way back will be tougher. He is no longer as valuable to the Indian batting as Zaheer is to the bowling.
Almost like a famous old wrestler playing small arenas after his heyday is over, Sehwag drew the loudest cheers from a 1000-plus gathered around the nets. Like the old wrestler, he brought out his party tricks, hitting spinners for big shots, sending the crowd - mainly students - into raptures. Then Dhawal Kulkarni hit him on the right index finger with the first ball of pace he faced. A long look at the finger followed. After some treatment from the physio, Sehwag returned - to the relief of the crowd - and went to the spinners' nets. More spin, less pace, is this sign of things to come?
Sehwag might himself be vacating the opening slot, but not long ago - when Gambhir was dropped and he was put on notice - he tweeted he was missing Gambhir on the eve of the Hyderabad Test. At least Gambhir has one fewer competitor for that opening spot now. Gambhir has fitness and age on his side, but he needs runs - a lot of them - and also for either M Vijay or Shikhar Dhawan to provide him an opening. Not long ago Vijay used to wait for Gambhir to get injured or slip up. Gambhir stayed the most inconspicuous in the nets, and had a solid long hit.
India's second-best quick ever, their second-best opener ever and one who had the promise of a longer stay at the top have been given lucky breaks. Zaheer is still relevant because India don't have exceptional fast bowlers. Ignored on previous A tours, Sehwag and Gambhir are here because the rest of the batsmen are busy playing CLT20. On Wednesday they will begin playing at the corner bar. It will be nice to see one or two or all of them back playing big auditoriums, but if only they have earned it.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo