OLD TRAFFORD: If the signs from India’s net sessions are anything to go by, R Ashwin seems set to play his first Test of 2014. It is not clear if he will take the place of Rohit Sharma or Ravindra Jadeja if he does so. During their loss in Southampton, India rarely used Jadeja as a wicket-taking bowler, but equally Rohit disappointed with his shot-selection in the first innings, stepping out and hitting Moeen Ali straight to mid-off five minutes before tea. Rohit seems to be the likelier one to go out, with India returning to their five-batsmen formula of the first two Tests.
India’s other worry that was accentuated in Southampton was their slip-catching. Jadeja dropped Alastair Cook on 15 in the first innings, and watched him return to form. Shikhar Dhawan dropped one catch in the second innings, a catch that MS Dhoni should have gone for. Dhoni later said that slip-catching was an issue, but added that Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane and Jadeja were the best three he had as a cordon.
However, there were enough signs in the nets two days ahead of the Old Trafford Test to suggest that that cordon will need a rejig. Dhawan is now an unlikely starter after six failures with the bat, and when India did their slips practice, M Vijay had moved in at first slip. Dhawan did not bat as much as he has been doing, and Gautam Gambhir can be hopeful of a Test return after having last played in late 2012.
It is not a given, though. Gambhir got a hit just after Vijay, but struggled a bit, and spent most of the remaining session sat on a cooler box. There is a line of thought that Cheteshwar Pujara could be asked to open with the other batsmen moving up one spot. In that scenario, Rohit could be retained, with Ashwin replacing Dhawan in the XI.
There might be confusion around the openers and No. 6, but there was also good news for India. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, whose swollen ankle had been a cause for concern, bowled for about 50 minutes in the nets without any visible discomfort. If he can manage similar fitness on Wednesday, he should be certain to share the new ball with Mohammed Shami on Thursday.
Pankaj Singh, who was unlucky in going wicketless on Test debut in Southampton, is not likely to witness a turnaround in his luck. Jharkhand quick Varun Aaron looks likely to replace Pankaj, with the latter doing hardly any bowling at the nets.
There has been another interesting trend in the India nets since they have arrived in Manchester. Their batsmen, mainly Pujara and Virat Kohli, have been going through stints in nets where they sweep, sweep and then sweep some more. That India lost six second-innings wickets to Moeen in Southampton is a big source of frustration for them. Dhoni said he does not want his batsmen to let Moeen settle into a rhythm. India were aggressive against the offspinner, but lost Rohit in the process in the first innings.
India batsmen are not natural sweepers of the ball. They like to use their feet to get to the pitch of the ball. Before this Test, though, the sweep, with the batsmen consciously getting outside the line of off and with the bat coming down from quite high, seems to be an addition the coaches want them to make.