It’s summer time in the United Kingdom. The sun, rarely seen through the year in this part of the world, has been blazing out for a few days. It has infused the air with a sense of eventfulness and people are trying to make the most of it. The last weekend of May is also an extended break with the Bank Holiday Monday.
There was plenty happening for people to get entertained in London. Arsenal ended England’s football season by clinching a record 13th FA Cup title. Heavy metal lovers saw the clock turn back as Iron Maiden performed twice over the weekend at the O2 Arena. The tubes, through the nights, have been filled with hordes of people wearing similar colours. A sea of Chelsea fans felt the blues as they walked out soon after the final whistle on Saturday only for Arsenal supporters to try and turn them red with some banter. The ones wearing black with the Maiden paints were high on good music and then some. Elsewhere near the London Bridge, peppy Spanish music blared out in the open air as scores of revellers celebrated the onset of weekend.
The festive mood of the rest of the city of London played different to the tune around cricket. There is a big tournament lined up to start soon and eight of the world’s top ODI teams have already descended upon the country and for each of them, now is the time to focus and fine-tune.
For a lot of the sides, the pre-Champions Trophy practice sessions or games have been nondescript. At the historic Kennington Oval, Sri Lanka and Australia fought it out in a high-scoring see-saw battle in front of a few hundred people. But like Shinedown, the opening act in the Iron Maiden concert, they probably would have felt a little desolated at the reception of the following act.
India and New Zealand clashed on Sunday at the same venue in a similar warm-up game. It was anything but a warm-up as fifteen thousand India fans bought their way into The Oval. A frenzied celebration of wickets, idols, an idol’s fifty ensued. Even rain lashing down before their team’s eventual victory did little to dampen their spirits.
Arsenal clinched the FA Cup over the weekend to signify the end of the football season in England. © Getty
For millions around the world, revelry comes in different forms, be it sport or music. For more than a few million Indians, a cricket stadium visit is a fusion of nationalism, idol-worship, sport fanaticism and a rock ballad giving them the license to scream their throat hoarse. It makes for a delectable viewing atmosphere. But keeping away from the hype perhaps only adds to the challenges of the Indian team as they build a bubble to focus on their priorities.
Post the match, while a cacophony was building up marking India as firm favorites, James Neesham had to remind reporters, and perhaps his own team, that the loss came in a mismatch. “I think they (Indian bowlers) were firing in all cylinders. Any game you play where you play all the fifteen players gives you the luxury of the bowlers coming back fresher, he remarked wryly and added, “But I thought their seamers hit the deck hard and obviously you know what you get from their spinners as well. So it was pretty challenging.”
One of India’s problems is identifying their best bowling attack. The warm-up game acted as a chance to test them all and India went in with the option of playing all fifteen members. Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah came out with success while Umesh Yadav did well in the little that he had to do. A worrying unticked box would be the new ball efforts of Hardik Pandya (6-0-49-0), leaving the balance of the side still unshaped. They will have one more practice game against Bangladesh (on 30th May) to iron the chinks out while strengthening that bubble before the big clash against Pakistan in their opening game. They will need to make themselves believe that it isn’t a matter of life and death even as everyone around them tries to make it one.
New Zealand too have the problem of plenty to choose from and will get a chance against Sri Lanka to test out their skills. They have the reputation of coming out of the shadows in ICC tournaments.
In the brave new world of ODI cricket where par scores are getting higher and higher, Neesham and the rest of the bowling ilk realise that it is no longer an age of innocence. “I look forward to copping a bit of short stuff in every game,” laughs Neesham. “But that’s the nature of ODI cricket now I suppose. If you do just the ball up there and hoping for the best, a lot of times you’re going to get hit over your head. The way the game has been evolving and with par scores getting higher and higher, you do have to change your lengths a lot more and the bouncer is one of them.”
For Luke Ronchi, the great unknown is still what kind of pitch turns up on match day. “You just never know! England made 400 against us and before that game we didn’t think that we could make 400. Anything’s possible. It depends on the wickets. They might be green, they might be slow. I think you just want to play the way you play as best as possible. If you get 350-400, then brilliant. I don’t think you set out thinking the benchmark is 400.”
England wouldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams that they would be in this position just two years after the World Cup debacle of 2015. They have managed back-to-back wins against South Africa with their batting line up evoking fear in opposition ranks. And they will know that reinforcing this fear is key to their chances of winning the tournament.
Come June 1, there will be no time left for the teams to do things differently, and successfully. It is this air of rehearsal that surrounds the cricket teams in London before the main event. Be it the teams, or the organisers, there are plenty of things to plot through in the short time available as they attempt to create a cricket carnival. And if they are to remember tomorrow with pride, then this is the time to get into groove.