Loye and O’Brien make Indians toil

Northamptonshire 355 for 7 (O’Brien 117, Loye 100) drew with Indians 352 (Abhinav 113, Mishra 61, Evans 4-74) by three wickets

If the Indians’ batting had a bad day at the office on Friday, hundreds from Northants openers Mal Loye and Niall O’Brien ensured that their bowlers were run ragged on the second day of what has been quite a trying practice game.

The Indians’ two-day match against Northamptonshire was meant to be their warm-up for Edgbaston. If a result was to be decided on the basis of which team contained the less red faces in their dressing room, the Indians would not be the winners.

The match ended in a draw that will be marked down as a ‘first-innings win’ for Northamptonshire. After Northants lost seven wickets after tea, their tailenders made use of the opportunity and the opposition’s lack of intensity to cross the Indians’ first-innings total of 352, and register the first-innings win under the ECB’s regulations, which are meant to ensure that two-day tour games, while not first-class matches, can still entertain the viewing public.

India are far from entertained by what happened today: it began with the announcement that Rahul Dravid had been called up to the ODI team after a two-year gap; which even took Dravid himself by surprise. Zaheer Khan then walked off the field after a three-over spell this morning and questions about his fitness for Edgbaston grew louder. All that he proved is that he can bowl off a full run-up but what is still not known is for how long he can sustain himself.

Then there was the Indians’ performance in the field, which ended in Northants’ Nos. 7 and 9 running off the ground to celebratory cheering after adding 54 for the eighth wicket.

Once the Loye-O’Brien 201-run partnership was ended just after tea, Northants lost wickets in a heap; six within 40 runs. Dave Burton and David Murphy had read their rule books and stuck on to see the team past their first-innings target, against a fielding side who seemed keen to leave the field when the last hour of play began.

Gautam Gambhir and then MS Dhoni had frequent discussions with the umpires but play continued. The farce reached its conclusion when the Indians took the new ball and Dhoni bowled the second over with it.

The heavy duties of last week may have caused the Indian bowling to go through mere motions for the better part of the proceedings. Yet, ideally, the world ‘s No. 1 Test team, even when bowling within itself, could be expected to take a wicket before the 48th over against a county side.

The Indians’ two hardest-working bowlers today were Amit Mishra, who bowled 17 overs straight, out of his total of 25, and Munaf Patel who bowled ten in a row before tea and seven in his second spell.

There was very little that the Indians could consider minor victories from this practice match. Harbhajan Singh’s injury put Mishra onto centre-stage and in his 25 overs today, he was most respectfully handled by the Northants batsmen, their aggression reserved mostly for the quicker men. The wicket did little, but if Mishra was advertising his wares as a pressure-builder rather than strike bowler, he did adequately. Until, in his 12th over, Loye strolled down the wicket and hit him over long-on for six.

Loye, a giant right-hander who is one of the senior-most pros in county cricket, and O’Brien, a less industrial-sized left-hander who also keeps wicket for Ireland, put up a partnership of 201 before Loye was out four balls after he crossed his hundred. The Indians may have erred, but the Northants openers both played with the full attention required by the occasion and provided the entertainment required by their full County Ground. Loye’s trademark swept sixes and meaty strokes, and O’Brien’s general sense of daring were both out on full display.

Zaheer Khan’s three overs began better than they ended, his first containing two wides and the next two an alarming flood of 22 runs. Loye swept him for six in the second, following through rakishly on his knee, and O’Brien hit him for three fours in his third. After that, Zaheer walked off and was not seen again on the field. His performance today was not a stern examination of his fitness by the management. It was just a progress report on whether he can be risked at Edgbaston because he is still the man who can claim to own much of the keys, locks and doors that took India to the No. 1 Test ranking in the world.

The match was meant to be a 12-a-side fixture with one extra batsman getting a chance of a hit and one tired soul getting a chance to stay off the field. Ishant Sharma found his name on the team sheet only to make the minimum number of 12. He didn’t bowl a single over and was only briefly on the field, as men came and went like the supporting cast of a long-running and somewhat-tired soap. Dhoni came on after lunch for a spot of fielding and was replaced by Praveen Kumar. Virat Kohli, not a part of the touring squad at the start of the week, was sent out to do some menial duties a day after his first sighting. Dhoni then dragged himself back out again and was to be seen mostly in the wilderness of deep point or on the long leg boundary before he popped up and decided to bowl a sprinkling of overs.

The two-day practice match between the Indians and Northamptonshire should have given out to neutral observers the signs of what was being tackled after Trent Bridge. The sign came well before the first ball of the second day was bowled. Dravid had, once again, after a two-year gap, made it to the ODI team. The team that has just won the World Cup needed its second-oldest playing pro to hack it in England.

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