Cricket tries to bring normality

Virender Sehwag takes part in India's practice Associated Press

In the space of less than 24 hours, a much-anticipated Test match that was meant to send the rivalry between the teams into overload, amp up the chanting of fans on both sides and increase sniping in the commentary box suddenly found itself in inconsequential isolation.

Removed from events taking place in Birmingham city centre on Monday night. Detached from scenes of violence over the last two days in London, which set buildings on fire, burnt cars, shattered glass, vandalised shops and beseiged the police force. These are images that usually belong to less privileged, less predictable worlds; not urban England which must now grapple with confusion, anger, sadness and self-examination. In the middle of all this, the cricket has to happen.

What not so long ago mattered deeply to insular worlds in both England and India has for a brief while been knocked into perspective. Those about to be involved in a bitter contest in Birmingham must have realised, in a short burst of insight, they were all actually on the same side. Both captains turned up for their media briefings and most of the time answered questions about their reaction to the rioting. England captain's Andrew Strauss' using the word "isolated" several times to describe what the players felt like and M S Dhoni said they would leave all issues about security to the experts.

Being 'isolated' is perhaps the only way for the match to have any meaning for the players taking part. Strauss talked about the importance of "normal preparation" and "starting well." India have had the starts they need more than once in the series, it is just their finishing that has been far from perfect. India's worries through this tour, Dhoni said, had been about injuries, fitness and form and suddenly it didn't seem quite such a catastrophe.

The Test will be the first big fixture for the new-look Edgbaston, its low-rise old self now overwhelmed by a soaring pavilion that has risen out of the year-long remodelling of the "county ground" that is now a stadium, its capacity increased by 5000 to a total of 25,000. The fans may hope that a new-look India emerge from that pavilion with a bowling attack remodelled one way or the other and a batting line-up with a far more orderly structure than it has had over the last two Tests. India need its newer parts to work because until now it is India's older batsmen that have held one end up rather than those that are supposed to take over from them.

On Wednesday, the old guard will be joined by one of their own, in Virender Sehwag; yet for him to become the single man who could change the fortune of a series in the matter of a few innings is stretching collective ambition to snapping point. Sehwag played his first match after three months last weekend against Northamptonshire and batted for half an hour. His last international game was more than four months ago; these are gaps that are rarely filled by that elusive thing called 'form' in any textbook of cricketing logic.

Sehwag just happens to be a man who can tear up those text books; against an England attack that has sized up the Indians more than adequately, however, his aura, will need more company at the crease. During this Test India will have one last chance to establish its own aura in the series and take control of the events on the field of play, "controllables" that India have not managed to seize ownership of.

At Edgbaston, India need to hold onto what they have earned and owned with much labour: their ranking is the least of it, it is their reputation as a competitive, combative team that needs defending. Their performance in this series has reached a stage where the milestones of history - the 2000th Test, the 100th between India and England, Sachin Tendulkar's impending 100 international centuries - cannot distract anyone any more. Dhoni tried to temper down India's task at hand, talking about how most of the games he was involved in had, like this tour, been difficult. "I have never played any game which has been easy. When we play at home, there is the pressure to win. When we play abroad, there is the pressure to prove ourselves."

The expectation on their opponents, is to follow through on what they have done for in the series so far. England must deal with alarming news off television and the prospect of playing a game loaded with opportunity. Being isolated, unaffected was exactly they need to do. Strauss said, "In a lot of ways in preparing for a Test match, it is wrong for us to spend too much time thinking about this at this stage." The captain of England is however, a man capable of being reasonable and sagacious. In the middle of his professional-speak, Strauss said, "I think this is an opportunity for cricket to maybe put a feel-good factor to the newspapers and show that not everything's bad out there at the moment... Let's divorce the cricket match from what's going in in the country which is clearly not our proudest hour." He called the events across England's cities, "horrific" and "disappointing," but in Birmingham, his team would leave it behind. "We fully intend to go out there and play the game as we would any other game of cricket."

Yet if any team are master practitioners at living in a bubble, actually isolated from the chaos, critique and expectation around them, it would have to be the Indians, whose normal playing life at home involves police personnel posted on their hotel floors. Focussing the mind away from what is happening around them should come naturally to the Indians, the extra something that they need at this moment is not detachment. It is the sharpness of mind, body and game.

From new Edgbaston's eyrie-like media box, the Birmingham skyline spreads out to the north. It is a typical, geometrical cityscape with office blocks, hotels, convention centres, cranes and telecommunication towers. In other times, these are the engine-rooms of business, money, enterprise.

On Tuesday, a helicopter hovered in the sky over the centre of the city. Who knew what was on in the streets below? In all this, it was almost comforting then to watch was happening on the field: Amit Mishra's send down a special bowling drill on one side of the ground, trying to find the line that a bowler of his tribe may need over the next few days. A short distance away, in bright afternoon sunshine, Rahul Dravid had his final bout of shadow batting at one end of the wicket on which the Test will be played. Once done, he got down on all fours to inspect it like a gardner would to sight the beginning of weeds.

Cricket can often seem a meaningless game but there are times when in the middle of it all, even that matters.