Not long after 6.30 on pretty much any weekend morning in Mumbai during the cricket season, as another dusty dawn lightens the sky and the city starts to wake, the great Maidans are already buzzing with the game.
Nets are up, practice matches have started. Hundreds are here. And it is on the great acres of open land that is to be found the bedrock of the game. By nine o'clock, matches have started, pitches packed in so that at times it has appeared as if games overlap, as Venn diagrams, with third-man in one match able to converse with fine-leg in another.
Stop and watch any of these matches, or practice sessions, for any length of time, and one thing always strikes. The fields are teeming with spin bowlers, for few in their right minds want to be pacers, as they are succinctly called here, in this heat. So the twirlers prevail. But then so do the batsmen who face them. They play with delicate hands, guiding the ball deftly, reading the length, using their feet, driving, cutting, flicking, hitting over the top. It is instructive to see this happening so readily at the grassroots of the game and makes it easier to understand how, say, a relative Test match novice such as Cheteshwar Pujara can play the most prolific off-spin bowler England have ever possessed with such assurance. And, for the sake of argument again, Ian Bell, a veteran batsman of 80 matches, appears unsure even now of what is required to face such bowling.
The answer lies in the upbringing. Indian batsmen are schooled in the art from their most formative years; methods, techniques and confidence ingrained in them even before they have a chance to think about it. All their cricketing lives they play on dry, dusty pitches, which is why, when confronted with lateral movement at pace, they themselves can struggle.
The contrast with England's batsmen is simple. At home the season starts in April. Pitches are sappy, seam bowling dominates. Spinners all too readily, through necessity more than anything, become stopgaps, run-savers, bottlers-up of ends.
Against this background English batsmen learn whatever skills they possess against spin, but rarely is it against the turning ball in the way that they encounter here. And it shows in the manner that even the most successful play. No matter their pedigree, such batting looks studious and manufactured rather than natural and instinctive, as if they have to think too hard about what they are doing. When Nick Faldo was in his golfing pomp, he appeared to play as if to say: "Look how difficult this game is in which I am succeeding," rather than: "See how easy I can make a difficult game appear." Therein is the difference between the manner in which the two sides approach spin. It cannot be played to a formula and for Indians it is in the blood.
It is inconceivable, given the hapless manner in which England's middle order batted against Pragyan Ojha in particular, and further, the way that the two India pacemen used the old ball on such a sluggish pitch as that at Motera, that Wankhede will not offer more of the same, perhaps even more so given that it is a reused surface. Inconceivable also that England will alter the balance of their team between bat and ball.
There are certain clouds to the issue, however, that make the detail of selection less straightforward than it might be. The renewed injury to Steve Finn has been unhelpful, for even before the tour he was viewed as a fundamental part of the bowling strategy.
Finn will remain in India for rehabilitation on his injured thigh, having had another scan yesterday, with a view to playing in a three-day match for the England performance squad next week.
If the pitch in Mumbai is certain to turn, and from early on, if MS Dhoni gets his wish, then given Andy Flower's admission that the omission of Monty Panesar was in hindsight a mistake, he would not look too clever if he left him out.
Which leaves two seamers. Wankhede, hard by the sea, can swing (Ian Botham could tell a thing or two about that) although humidity is not high at present, and will probably offer more pace and bounce (better for seam but makes spin even more dangerous). Jimmy Anderson will play and, presumably, Stuart Broad, although he might be asked to up the ante a bit. As an alternative Stuart Meaker's extra pace could be seen as an important factor.
Bell's brief paternal sojourn means at least one batting place needs to be filled – and perhaps two. Candidates to replace Bell are Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan. Bairstow's pedigree against spin, certainly in India, is limited in scope and not impressive: four ODIs here a year ago saw him make three, 35, nine and two, each time dismissed by the left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja. But Morgan had a desperate winter last year, was dropped and sent away to get rid of basic flaws in his technique, although they appear to have been addressed. With the main trouble coming from Ojha rather than the off-spin of Ravichandran Ashwin, common sense says a second left-hander would be an asset, although Ashwin, perhaps because of his height, has a good record in Mumbai.
Morgan should be first choice of the two but Bairstow will probably play. Further thought means that to omit Samit Patel would be harsh at this stage.
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