In one corner of the ground sat David Saker, England’s bowling coach, holding court with six seamers, like a father with his sons. Out in the middle, the groundsman gave the pitch, already biscuit-coloured and tinder-dry, some final, tender attention. It did not look as if it had been prepared with Saker’s brood in mind.
In the left-hand net, Peter Moores and Paul Farbrace took turns to whistle down some balls to Sam Robson, the rookie opener, diligent and attentive and eager to learn; in the right, Simon Kerrigan, a left-arm spinner who has been tried and discarded, huffed and puffed under the tutelage of Peter Such, the lead spin-bowling coach for the ECB.
Matt Prior, meanwhile, underwent some fitness work with England’s physiotherapist, while, later, Bruce French put Prior through his paces to test a thigh that had become stiff overnight. Jos Buttler, called up just in case Prior fails to recover, which is unlikely, watched on, grinning and smiling like a man whose career is on the up.
Alastair Cook walked into a net and faced, among others, Stuart Broad, now refreshed after a ten-day break and looking a different man from the one who finished the game, exhausted, at Headingley.
The England captain looked eager to get his pins moving forward, but groped for the ball and missed on occasions. Afterwards, he walked into the Trent Bridge Long Room to face his inquisitors. When asked what he had been doing for the past ten days, he said “hitting lots of balls” and left it at that. He would dearly love to hit a lot more on a ground he has rarely done well at.
For all that India’s batsmen, assuming that Gautam Gambhir is not selected, have not played a Test in England between them; for all that India have not won an overseas Test for three years and have not won abroad for 14 Tests, and have a seam attack that looks a little toothless on paper, all the questions — encapsulated in the activity described — are with England this week.
Defeat in this match, and this series, does not bear thinking about for Cook, for Moores or for the ECB.
If Mahendra Singh Dhoni was aware of the importance of the game, it didn’t show. He is cricket’s philosopher-king, dispensing wisdom in tones that stay measured regardless of the situation. This “challenging period”, as he put it, will make Cook a better cricketer and man. The England captain may not have been reassured. With Cook insistent that he is one innings away from a return to form, and Dhoni that his team’s recent performances have been better than results suggest, both grasped at whatever straws were available.
Excessive scrutiny is a given for Dhoni, of course, and although he looks a little older and greyer now — he was 33 on Monday — than he did when he took on the Indian captaincy, he copes with the glare remarkably well. It helps, possibly, that there is a greater degree of deference within the Indian media, as questions are put to him in respectful tones, often prefaced with the word “skipper”.
Although India’s away record is woeful, Dhoni has a firmer ownership of the job than his counterpart, who will continue to be a lease-holder until the runs return.
Dhoni was at pains to distance this outfit from the tired, old, uninterested team that last toured these shores. The batting, while lacking the experience of the past, looks hungry and eager to perform. Although these players make their money in the IPL, it still holds that they make their reputations in Test cricket, and Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane are well aware of that.
Success in this series will varnish reputations in a way that a dash in the IPL cannot yet match. Kohli is the heir to Sachin Tendulkar’s throne, as the silkiest batsman, and biggest star. He struts and pouts in a way that Tendulkar never did, and more obviously courts celebrity, but he is diligent and committed as well as hugely talented.
As a template for modern batsmanship, he cannot be bettered, being a technician and entertainer in equal measure.
Pujara is Rahul Dravid to Kohli’s Tendulkar and his wicket will be as prized. Brought up on the featherbeds of Rajkot, he has a love of batting and a hunger for runs given to few. With three first-class triple hundreds to his name, England had a close-up view of his desire on their last tour, when he began with a mere double hundred in Ahmedabad, a single in Mumbai. He is a class act.
England’s bowlers will need to get among them with the new ball, or else some long, tiring days await, with no Graeme Swann to bail them out. Where better to start, then, than at Trent Bridge and with James Anderson, given that Anderson has a remarkable record there. He has the small matter of 49 wickets in seven Tests, including six five-wicket hauls, and two of ten, the second of those in the Ashes last year, an effort that left the tank empty.
Ben Stokes, who is likely to be given an opportunity ahead of Chris Jordan, and Liam Plunkett complete the set. Given that Plunkett is effective in short, sharp bursts, and given the need to give Broad and Anderson shorter spells than they endured at Leeds, Stokes may have to do some donkey work, which may not suit him.
It means that Cook will have to show more faith in Moeen Ali, too, and India will be sure to attack him from the outset. It will test the mettle of the off spinner and his captain. India want five bowlers, but are reluctant to play two spinners, which may mean a place for Stuart Binny, son of Roger, whose wobblers helped India to win the 1983 World Cup, setting in motion the changes that resulted in India’s leadership of the world game.
Leadership of the attack rests with the unreliable Ishant Sharma, with Mohammed Shami and Buvneshwar Kumar for solid, if unspectacular support.
It is a difficult series to call. India are stronger in batting and spin, and England have the more incisive seam attack. Given that, England ought to start marginal favourites but they have become accustomed to losing, and to throwing away good positions time and again. If they do so again, this India team look more capable of punishing them than their predecessors.