| Sreesanth at practice in Nagpur on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Nagpur: The players had retired to their rooms, after lunch, when a magician turned up at the team hotel. “I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve... I won’t charge a Rupee...” he pleaded as security personnel asked him to leave.
If only the gentleman had come earlier, he would have bumped into the Andrew Flintoffs and the Rahul Dravids. Nagpur’s jamaai may not have shown interest, but Flintoff would have been tempted to borrow the odd trick before the TVS Cup gets underway Wednesday.
After all, the newest England captain (given the job as both Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick are back home) needs everything to counter a high-on-confidence Team India. And, on a wicket which promises no joy for Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard.
Of course, the less said about the heat the better.
The very politically correct Dravid didn’t say anything ' “England’s a strong team... Irrespective of who plays, I expect them to be competitive” ' to put down the visitors, but it’s debatable whether Duncan Fletcher and Flintoff actually have the same faith in what has become such an inexperienced dressing room.
It’s not just the loss of experience (133 Tests): Vaughan’s average versus India is 90-plus and Trescothick’s is close to 60. Fantastic, really.
Even England’s bowling has suffered ' Ashley Giles, who tormented Sachin Tendulkar on the last trip to India (2001-02), pulled out before the tour and Simon Jones left with Vaughan.
Clearly, such setbacks have reduced to near-zero England’s hopes of a Test series win (in India) for the first time since 1984-85. Team India’s stock is, well, sky-high and the upward movement more stunning than even the Sensex’s.
Having conceded the No.2 spot in the ICC rankings to England only recently, India have an excellent chance of regaining it without much sweat. A series win will suffice.
“We’ve had a mental break (after Pakistan) for a few days and that has been good... We’re excited about a new series... There’s a perception that England’s batsmen are weak against spin, but I don’t think that’s the reality... Just as it’s (wrongly) held Indians can’t play fast bowling,” Dravid observed.
He added: “At times, there can be an excessive focus on the results... We’re focusing on good cricket and the development of this team. Players have been picked on merit, but it isn’t ability alone... What they bring by way of spirit (has also been a factor)...”
Asked to comment on Flintoff, somebody he has played with (in the Super Series) and opposed (at the County level, too), Dravid said: “The circumstances could get the best out of him... It could also be a challenge for him as a batsman and bowler...”
Not that he has a choice, but Fletcher sounded cautious: “It hasn’t been an ideal build-up, but there are opportunities for the less experienced... One never knows what such situations may do... The best can come out... What I do know is that everyone’s keen...”
Lanky 21-year-old Alastair Cook (a left-hander), flown over from the West Indies, is expected to make his debut and open with the gifted Andrew Strauss.
Incidentally, in recent months, both India and England have lost to Pakistan in a Test series. Unbelievably, the last India versus England face-off was as far back as the summer of 2002.
According to The Telegraph’s sources, Dravid and coach Greg Chappell have dropped the idea of five specialist bowlers. So, the attack is going to have a rather conventional 2-2 look: Irfan Pathan and debutant Sreesanth with the new ball; Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.
Sreesanth, who was impressive during the limited overs matches in Pakistan, made his ODI debut, too, in Nagpur ' against Sri Lanka, four months ago. He will be the second new ball bowler (after Rudra Pratap Singh) to be capped in the space of three Tests.
Time for youth.
Opener Wasim Jaffer, by the way, isn’t the only one making a comeback ' in the same bracket is Mohammed Kaif. Even Harbhajan, who was dropped in Karachi.
Given that the wicket may break rather early, the captain winning the toss won’t have to scratch his head. God help the one who loses...
India (as of late Tuesday): Virender Sehwag, Wasim Jaffer, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Mohammed Kaif, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Irfan Pathan, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Sreesanth.
England (from): Andrew Flintoff (captain), Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Shaun Udal, Geraint Jones, Ian Blackwell, Monty Panesar, Matthew Hoggard, Steven Harmison, James Anderson, Liam Plunkett, Owais Shah.
Umpires: Aleem Dar, Ian Howell; TV: I. Shivram.
Match Referee: Ranjan Madugalle.
Match starts: 10.00 am.
The visitors had misgivings over the nets arrangements (at the VCA Stadium) on Tuesday. A gentleman, it seems, even dragged Match Referee Ranjan Madugalle into the picture. Once he got to know about it, the former Sri Lankan captain had to tick him off.