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Roving Reporter by Jamie Alter
February 22, 2006
I arrive in Baroda, where England takes on a strong Indian Board President's XI for the next three days, in anticipation of a good contest. England have won their tour opener in style, but the opposition here will test them, with names such as Munaf Patel, Vikram Singh and S Sreesanth - he who took 4 for 58 in India's recent win at Karachi - keen to make an impression ahead of the Test series.
After checking in to the Hotel Yuvraj - a fitting name - my colleague Amit and I travel to the Baroda Cricket Association (BCA) office to pick up our accreditation passes. The office, located in the sprawling grounds of the Laxmi Vilas Palace, has a golf course, an antiques museum, and a gun store. Apart from some decrepit architecture from a bygone era, it is a simple affair, with little to suggest that matters pertaining to cricket are organized here.
A net session is happening across the way, but the atmosphere is lazy and the absence of noise - save for the odd call of the mynah bird - refreshing. It is a very calm, unobtrusive location, a place where you might expect the ghosts of Vijay Hazare and Hemu Adhikari to stand under the shade of a tree and talk cricket.
We are greeted by four or five gentlemen sitting around. They acknowledge us and one rises to greet us and assist with our accreditation. The others carry on chatting.
From here it is on to a press conference at the Taj Hotel, where the hotel is abuzz with security, press and the odd wayfarer keen to get a glimpse of Andrew Flintoff. Steve Harmison makes a brief appearance - he expects a demanding tour - and then it's off to the IPCL Complex, about 10 km away, for a practice session.
The actual ground is larger and grander than I expected, and a large security personnel stands around, eager to meet the England team. Kiran More, the BCCI's chairman of selectors, is here, in dark glasses and Indian training jersey, walking around the press enclosure, chatting to both foreigner and Indian.
He is non-committal on the Indian side for the first Test at Nagpur, and refuses to comment on the much-hyped topic of Sourav Ganguly. When confronted by two Bengali journalists, he smiles. "What can I say to you chaps? I will say something, you will print something else, and something entirely different will come out." They laugh awkwardly.
At the press conference, Andrew Walpole, England's media manager, informed us that Shaun Udal, Simon Jones, Monty Panesar and Ian Blackwell were down with a stomach bug. When the team arrive, Blackwell and Paul Collingwood - still recovering from injury - are there, smiling. Panesar walks in last, kit bag in hand. No sign of Jones and Udal, however.
Baroda is already hot, and the English cricketers make a brief appearance out on the field, completing a few fielding drills before heading off to the adjacent nets. Panesar and Kevin Pietersen take some catching practice. Pietersen holds every one of them today but Panesar drops two in a row and is given an extra couple skiers.
Troy Cooley, England's bowling coach, emerges from the dressing room and promptly heads over to where a group of young cricketers sit. On seeing him, they all stand and smile. He asks who bowls what, searching for a left-arm seamer (we are in the land of Irfan Pathan, and Zaheer Khan, mind you) and then a handful of them are off to bowl to the cream of England's batting.
A young legspinner, hardly 15, sends down full tosses and long hops to Geraint Jones, but you can bet your bottom dollar that this story will be retold to school mates for a long time. As we stand behind the bowlers, chatting about prospects for the match, a fiery straight drive from Pietersen - he must have heard us - lands not six feet from where we are standing, knocking off a branch of an overhanging tree. It's time to head out.
As I am leaving along with a few other journalists, we get to speak to the chief curator, Vasudev Patel. He gives us a hearty handshake and, when questioned as to the nature of the pitch, he invites us to go and take a look for ourselves. "It's a green top, good for the fast bowlers," he says. "And it will be the same tomorrow morning, just you see. We will not shave off much. It's well baked, too. This is our preparation for England."
There is more than a tinge of green on the pitch. In fact, it's one of the greenest tops you will see in India. Eyebrows are raised, and the general consensus is that this England are being offered little width on India's traditional dustbowls.
As we leave the ground Patel calls out, winking from beneath his sunglasses. "Kaisa laga, boss?" (How did you like it, boss?) We smile and nod, giving our approval, and then it's off to our respective hotels.
Back at the BCA office, Hazare and Adhikari still sit and talk, listening to the call of the mynah.
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