Outside the ground, stately Saturday traffic ambled along, oblivious to the fact that less than 50 metres away, the West Indies team was hard at practice. An unlocked, unmanned gate was the only barrier between the man on the street and the cricketers – as had been the case in the morning when the Indians were training – but it was as if the supposedly cricket-crazy Indian fan was either oblivious, or couldn’t care less.
It’s against this backdrop of general apathy that the two teams meet for the first time on Indian soil in more than nine years when the first of three Tests begins on Sunday. Seldom has there been such a lukewarm build-up to a Test series in this country, the remarkably lackadaisical ticket sales another pointer to the supreme indifference of the common man.
All that, of course, could change over the next couple of days, and especially if a little fella answering to the name of Sachin Tendulkar deigns. Since March 12, the cricketing world has waited for the moment when the 38-year-old brings up his 100th international ton. That wait might end in the next five days at the same venue where he went past Sunil Gavaskar’s long-standing record of 34 Test tons. Then again, it might not, because even for Tendulkar, scoring an international hundred is not just a case of turning up at the venue.
The rest of the country might believe all India need to put the West Indies in their place is to turn up at the venue, but Tendulkar and his team-mates don’t share the same sentiment. There is no room for complacency in international sport, and especially not for a team that was beaten out of sight in its last Test engagement, in England this summer.
With India scheduled to travel to Australia next month, it is imperative that Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men rediscover winning ways. As much for confidence and morale as for ranking points, the Indians have to shed their diffidence of England in their first Test series since the loss of the number one ranking.
A multitude of factors led to the catastrophe in England, but India are in a far better space this time around. The cream of the batting is both well rested and available, Delhi boys Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag reunited at the top and the middle-order wearing a formidable, rounded, familiar look. Yuvraj Singh should take his place at number six ahead of a third Delhi boy, Virat Kohli, but it’s the bowling that will attract interest and attention.
All of 38 Tests old, Ishant Sharma will be the leader of a pack that will include at least two debutants. Offie R Ashwin is a shoo-in to form the spin component alongside Pragyan Ojha, while Umesh Yadav is expected to edge out Varun Aaron as Ishant’s new-ball partner. It might look an attack unlikely to give the Caribbeans many sleepless nights, but despite the fact that their top-order has been amongst the runs in Bangladesh, Darren Sammy’s boys won’t take anything for granted. They aren’t unaware of India’s extraordinary home record – unbeaten in a series since November 2004 – while apart from Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the colourful Marlon Samuels, no one player in this party has played a Test in India.
As well as Kirk Edwards has started his Test career – the right-hander has two hundreds in his first three games – and the rest been among the runs in Bangladesh, to play two quality spinners on a surface that should assist them as the game progresses will require both patience and skills. In leggie Devendra Bishoo, the Caribbeans have their own spin ace, but clearly, their strength lies in fast bowling with the likes of Fidel Edwards, Ravi Rampaul and Kemar Roach genuine threats on any surface.
The series needs an early spark to generate interest and excitement. A Tendulkar ton early in the piece could do the trick, but the West Indies clearly have other ideas!
Teams (from): India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, R Ashwin, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rahul Sharma.
West Indies: Darren Sammy (capt), Kraigg Brathwaite, Adrian Barath, Kirk Edwards, Darren Bravo, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Marlon Samuels, Carlton Baugh, Ravi Rampaul, Fidel Edwards, Devendra Bishoo, Kemar Roach, Kieran Powell, Shane Shillingford, Denesh Ramdin.
Umpires: Kumar Dharmasena (Sri Lanka) and Rod Tucker (Australia). Third umpire: Sudhir Asnani. Match referee: Jeff Crowe (New Zealand).
Hours of play: 0930-1130 hours, 1210-1410 hours and 1430-end of play.