Graeme Swann plays down power of the pitch as England look to seize the moment in India
Spinner warns against 'obsession' with Nagpur wicket as hosts try to stave off historic defeat
Looking protectively over his pitch, Pravin Hingnikar declared that it would definitely last for five days. That seemed all well and good but what everyone wanted to know at the Vidarbha CA ground today was when it would start to take spin.
"Today," he said and smiled archly in that way of cricket ground curators and gentlemen thieves. The two statements did not necessarily seem complementary. If it turns quickly, in both senses of that phrase, the fourth Test might all be done and dusted by the fourth day, with both sides scrambling for a safe foothold in a minefield.
The state of the business part of the playing surface has dominated all predictions about the match, at least in those intervals when India's team is not being derided. It looked innocuous enough from the edge of the square today but then two days with a bit of watering and a hot sun would be tantamount to cosmetic surgery, which is not always an improvement on the original.
India, 2-1 behind and needing to win to preserve a formidable home record, may as well gamble everything on a pitch that guarantees victory for one side or the other. England seem unsure what to expect. But Graeme Swann, the off-spinner of whom much will be expected, pointed out that England's two victories in the series had little to do with the pitch.
"I don't think anybody could look at that wicket we've just played on and call it a rank turner from day one," he said. "It was a very good Test pitch, it did very little for the seamers or spinners on the first two days and broke up gradually as the game went on and was turning quite nicely by the end. Any obsession about pitches that have been ordered or whatever should have been banished because Kolkata produced an exceptional Test pitch."
England have a conflicting attitude to history, which of course they are on the verge of making. On the one hand they are professing to ignore it, on the other they want to learn from it.
"History here is exactly that, it's things that happened in the past, we don't worry about that," said Swann, referring to the well-worn observation that England have not won in India for the best part of 28 years. But then there is Sydney from early last year when England went into the final match in a similar position to this, 2-1 up and needing not to lose to clinch the series.
Swann recalled that Andrew Strauss, the side's captain then, sat the team down and reminded them of the hard work, how they would always feel let down without an outright series win. Swann and his partner, Monty Panesar, can expect a heavy workload in an unchanged England team but spinners may not be the only beneficiaries of whatever gifts the groundsman chooses to bestow at the VCA. Of the 94 wickets to have fallen in the three Test matches at the ground, 46 have been to spin, 44 to seam.
None of the matches has been close, India winning two, by 172 runs and an innings and 198 runs, and losing the other by an innings and six runs. The loss was engineered by incisive fast bowling from Dale Steyn of South Africa, who took 10 wickets in the match.
The stadium, an out-of-town edifice which has replaced the old-fashioned city centre ground where Alastair Cook and Panesar made their Test debuts in 2006, is a credit to the VCA. It puts to shame the refurbished yet shabby Eden Gardens ground in Kolkata and it actually looks as though an architect has been usefully employed.
Nagpur was the birthplace of India's first Test captain, C K Nayudu, in 1895, but has given the country no other Test cricketers since he led the side at Lord's in 1932. Now the place is set to play a decisive role in the future direction of the Test team. With public and pundit pressure mounting, it may always be known as the place where Sachin Tendulkar played his last Test match.
When the schedule was announced it was not meant to be like this. India won the first Test match of this series in Ahmedabad and they seemed on course in their much-touted revenge mission following their crushing 4-0 defeat in England last year.
Since then the tourists have been superior in all disciplines and will go into this match with a decisive edge. Their watchword, as it has been since they arrived in Mumbai, will be patience. The reputations of the respective captains and coaches have taken a different turn. M S Dhoni was the hero of the nation when he lifted the World Cup 18 months ago but his Test record has taken a battering lately and his insouciant approach to regular defeats is wearing decidedly thin.
Duncan Fletcher has been coach in more Tests than anyone else, 115 in all, 96 with England, the last 19 with India, of which 10 have now ended in defeats. Victories have come only against West Indies and New Zealand and Fletcher has spoken not a peep to justify his methods.
England's coach, Andy Flower, has hardly been loquacious on this tour, declining to appear after both victories or to explain his team's changed character. But his pep talk to his team at lunch last Saturday when India had raced to 86 for 0 was testament to his powers. Six wickets tumbled in the session afterwards.
Although Flower's prolonged public silences may be no way for a modern coach to perform, his stock has still risen, if not quite as high as that of the captain, Cook. Win this and he could probably persuade his employers that he never need speak in front of a microphone again.
England (probable): A N Cook (capt), N R D Compton, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, S R Patel, M J Prior, G P Swann, S T Finn, J M Anderson, M S Panesar.
India (probable): M S Dhoni, G Gambhir, V Sehwag, C A Pujara, S R Tendulkar, V Kohli, R A Jadeja, R Ashwin, A Dinda, P P Ojha, I Sharma.
Umpires R Tucker (Aus) & K Dharmasena (S Lanka).
Pitch report A lush, green outfield suggests reverse swing may be difficult to achieve. It will turn and may bounce for the spinners as well.
TV Sky Sports 1, 3.30am-12pm Thursday.
Odds India 11-8 Draw 2-1 Eng 9-4.
Weather Warm and sunny, with a chance of showers in the afternoon. Maximum temperature: 29C.
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