Of cliches and a charity-match ambience
Expectations from this contest have fallen pretty sharply. The grand theme, the battle for No. 2, is barely audible. Even the Sourav Ganguly thing seems to have died down for the moment. Numbed followers must spend time on such mundane things as working out what XI India will field, and whether England will field an XI at all.
Everything you need to know about the state of both the pitch and the condition of the touring party lies in Duncan Fletcher's remark that England have a "very good chance" of playing two spinners.
Presuming they don't return home this evening, those two should be Ian Blackwell, whom Indian viewers will remember more for a 68-ball 82 against them in the Champions Trophy of 2002, and Shaun Udal, 18 days shy of his 37th birthday. Udal's 690 first-class wickets have come at 32.56 apiece; and Blackwell's 185 at 43.39. They have between them three Test victims. They are up against a pair with over 700, and the surface is expected to assist them.
According to Kenia Jayantilal, who opened once for India and now coaches Vidarbha, the pitch at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium has been more receptive to spin this season than the last, at the request of offspinning captain Pritam Gandhe. "Quite dry," he says, and dry was also the adjective twice used in a sentence by each captain when asked.
"I would play three spinners," says Jayantilal. "But let me add that there is still more bounce in this wicket than most others in India." England may also take some heart from his contention that, even despite the lush outfield there has been sufficient abrasion from the pitch for reverse swing this season. "Within 20 overs sometimes."
Yet, despite the dryness, despite the thumping margins of victory recorded by India and Australia in contrasting conditions in the last two Tests played here, the fact is that Nagpur has been very kind to batsmen. Against Australia, the bounce (and movement) was enough to disconcert the Indians but it was still a true bounce. And the boundaries are small. Sachin Tendulkar has scores of 179, 201 not out and 176 in three of his five Test matches here. Were it not for stumps on day five, Andy Flower would still be sweeping alternately past fine leg and third man from November 2000. There was even a time when Shib Sunder Das would keep turning up to eke out a Test hundred.
If England win the toss, thus, it will not be a bad place for Alastair Cook to debut. "We discussed him in our bowler's meeting last evening," said Rahul Dravid. "Some of the guys who have played against him in county cricket think he is a very good player."
Dravid dismissed England's perceived weakness against spin as a "cliché", but perhaps that was more revealing of the open-mindedness of the Indian captain. He pointed out that England had batted impressively the last time here. The problem is that none of their four best batsmen on that tour - Marcus Trescothick, Mark Butcher, Craig White and Michael Vaughan - is available now. And Graham Thorpe is turning out for the New South Wales seconds. It is scant consolation, but if they lack class, they do have some depth - Blackwell, Hoggard and Udal at 8, 9 and 10 could be a handy trio.
India will open with Wasim Jaffer and Virender Sehwag, said to be fully recovered from the shoulder injury that kept him out of the last three one-day matches against Pakistan. There is a chance too of playing the extra bowler, the 17-year-old with the googly, Piyush Chawla. Irfan Pathan's new-ball partner will almost certainly be the breakdancer formerly known as Sreesanth, expected to pip RP Singh primarily because of his right-handedness.
Otherwise it was a festive kind of pre-game day in Nagpur. Thousands took advantage of the free entry to watch the practise session, oohing and aahing and chanting and heckling behind the India nets much as they would at a game. Outside in the singeing afternoon the golawallas made superb sale of their vivid ices. In a related but not entirely relevant gleaning, pani-puri in Nagpur goes by the name gup-chup.
It is doubtful, though, if the match days will see much more activity. By late afternoon only about 5,000 tickets had been sold for a venue that can hold 40,000. All of them were season passes as day tickets, starting from Rs 100, will not be available till before the third day. Some punters expect the game to be finishing up by then. It can be seen as cocky, but for many England's spate of many-splendoured misfortune has taken the fun out of the thing. On the other hand, for many the fun only begins now.
India: 1 Wasim Jaffer, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 VVS Laxman, 6 Mahendra Singh Dhoni, 7 Irfan Pathan, 8 Anil Kumble, 9 Harbhajan Singh, 10 Piyush Chawla, 11 Sreesanth
England: 1 Andrew Strauss, 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Geraint Jones, 8 Ian Blackwell, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Shaun Udal, 11 Steve Harmison
Rahul Bhattacharya is contributing editor of Cricinfo Magazine and author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04