Calcutta/Southampton: Whenever off-field issues surround a contest, the intensity goes up a few notches. Winning and losing those important moments become all the more crucial and the urge to leave the field sporting the proverbial last laugh makes the players desperate.
As India and England prepare to take the field at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton on Sunday, for the third Test of the five-match series, such off-field issues have added to the atmosphere of rivalry between the teams.
India’s masterly display at Lord’s have given them the advantage of a 1-0 lead after the first game at Trent Bridge ended in a draw.
Ajinkya Rahane’s batting, Ishant Sharma’s bowling and most importantly captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s shrewd captaincy helped India sketch a memorable victory at the iconic venue.
Yet, the lead-up to the third Test has been less about batting and bowling and more about brickbats, as an after-effect of the spat between Ravindra Jadeja and James Anderson.
On Friday, Jadeja was found guilty by the International Cricket Council (ICC) of a Level I Code of Conduct offence and was fined 50 per cent of his match fees. Expectedly, the verdict hasn’t gone down very well with the Indians as the BCCI, through a media release, conveyed that it was not satisfied with the decision.
It was obvious that the Indian camp was thinking of lodging an appeal against the verdict and that bit was confirmed on Saturday when BCCI vice-president Rajeev Shukla said: “The Board will go for an appeal in ICC. We will put forward our case before ICC and we hope that justice will be done with Jadeja.”
Also interesting is the fact that Anderson’s case will be taken up by the ICC on August 1, Friday, the day after the Southampton Test is scheduled to end (provided it goes the distance). What that means is that the Test will begin with the backdrop of the Indians irked with the Jadeja verdict and will end with England keeping their fingers crossed about Anderson’s verdict. The Test, then, will be played in a heavy atmosphere of rivalry and that will hopefully bring out the best in the players.
It’s an important game for both the sides. Victory for India will assure that they won’t lose the series. Victory for England will mean that Alastair Cook’s side will not be able to win the series.
The triumph at Lord’s marked an end to India’s 15-match long drought without an overseas Test win. It stretched as far back as 2011, when India had beaten the West Indies at Kingston.
That was also the last time that the Dhoni-led side took a 1-0 series lead. In that light, this is uncharted territory for a young team.
On Friday, three batsmen spent most time in the nets. Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli were hard at work because they obviously want to make an impact before it is too late. The third was Rohit Sharma whose absence from the XI hasn’t been noticed thanks to the victory at Lord’s.
He was as busy in the practice session two days before the game as someone who had already been informed of his return to the starting line-up. Will Rohit be playing in Southampton?
It’s not easy to give an answer to the question, because while on one hand the argument is that Rohit can easily come in place of Stuart Binny, one also can’t rule out the factor of playing five bowlers. However, Dhoni, it seems, is not too keen on playing five bowlers and so if Binny is dropped Rohit looks likely to benefit.
In the first two Tests, Binny has only bowled 20 overs and both his spells have been in the first innings. While the hosts only batted once at Trent Bridge, it was telling that Binny didn’t get a single over at Lord’s when India looked to defend 319 runs. Surprisingly, Dhawan bowled two overs while Murali Vijay sent down four in that innings.
That Rohit too can bowl some part-time spin could help Dhoni move back to the seven-batsmen-four-bowlers-formula, especially now that India have taken a 1-0 lead.
The pitch at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl ranks somewhere in between the ones at Trent Bridge and Lord’s — green to start with and expected to dry out over the five days. There has been only one previous Test at the Ageas Bowl, a rain-affected draw between England and Sri Lanka in June 2011.
Meanwhile, for England, there is only one option and that is to bounce back in this match somehow. The home-team desperately needs someone from their ranks to come forth and put in an inspirational performance, breaking away from the trend of some insipid cricket played this summer. Jos Buttler, lined up for his Test debut in place of Matt Prior, is one such aggressive player.
Ideally though, England will like their two senior-most batsmen to make a stand. Their names are Ian Bell and skipper Alastair Cook.
India (likely): Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Stuart Binny/Rohit Sharma, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami.
England (likely): Alastair Cook, Sam Robson, Gary Ballance, Ian Bell, Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Jos Buttler, Chris Jordan/Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad, Liam Plunkett, James Anderson.
Match starts: 3.30pm (IST)