If some of India’s players are a bit confused about just who they are playing for, you can’t blame them.
Less than 24 hours after they were slugging it out for Air India at the Corporate Trophy in Bangalore, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, RP Singh and Suresh Raina found themselves at a centre-wicket net under lights at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo.
The players barely had time to change clothes, heading straight from their hotel to a practice session that everyone attended.
One of the first things they noticed, and there was some shaking of heads involved, was the manner in which the practice pitches played. After Gautam Gambhir had the briefest hit, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar were repeatedly forced to check their strokes as the ball gripped the surface and came onto the bat at varying pace.
In conditions like this India will feel the absence of Virender Sehwag all the more, for he is the one player who can force the pace irrespective of the conditions. Sehwag’s absence can be overcome, but it will need one of Tendulkar or Dravid to play a big hand.
While younger players like Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina often power the team in the shorter version of the game, conditions here call for careful innings construction and experience will come to the fore.
Dravid was understandably the focus of much attention, returning to the team after two years out, but the 36-year-old showed no signs of being out of the loop.
An extended net session, the last third of which was spent launching bowlers for towering sixes straight back over their heads, some sharp slip catching, capped off with ground fielding, left Dravid sweating profusely in the Colombo humidity.
In the recent past practice sessions have almost always been optional, and to see all the players turn up for a lengthy work out was a pretty clear declaration of intent.
Coach Gary Kirsten said that the team believed they needed two solid practice sessions before their first ODI. After two months off, the Corporate Trophy eased the players back into the groove, but the intensity will really be cranked up to full volume in the coming days.
Three wins in this tournament will put India at No. 1 in the International Cricket Council’s ODI rankings, but they will not be thinking of this yet. There will, however, be no escaping this fact, and the reminders from the media and the public began on Wednesday.
While Kirsten said it was a stated aim of the team to become No. 1, he denied this would put any extra pressure on the players. He also refused to be fazed by the conditions on offer.
“I saw the New Zealand- Sri Lanka match. The pitch played how I expected it t,” he said. “It’s almost a pitch of two halves. We understand what we need to do whether we’re batting first or bowling first.” Soon the time for talking will be over, as the Indian cricket juggernaut gets rolling once more.