Cardiff: Keeping Sri Lanka's reputation as a "dangerous side" in mind, Team India trained for nearly four hours at the Sophia Gardens on Wednesday. More than half the session was devoted to fielding drills as Thursday's ICC Champions Trophy semifinal here will leave very little margin for error.
India's fielding coach Trevor Penney seemed to the busiest man on Wednesday morning. He has been doubling up as a part-time batting coach and is probably the favourite "throw-down man" in the Indian camp. On Tuesday, Penney had spent an extra hour polishing Suresh Raina's strokes against seam and bounce. (See India's training in Pics)
It was a sunny morning after days of damp and cold weather. The Glamorgan groundstaff looked a happy lot for good sunshine will mean their new pitch for the semifinal will produce the character they desire. But will they finally see a full game? (Read)
The weatherman nowadays provide fairly accurate information. If they are to be believed, UK's fickle weather could maroon another Champions Trophy game between India and Sri Lanka. The 2002 final in Colombo faced a watery ending with successive days being washed out at the Premadasa Stadium. The trophy was shared for the first time in a major ODI championship. Here, there is no reserve day and India will go through to meet England in the final for having topped their group. (Read: Preview)
As both captains said the weather is something they can't control, so it was best to prepare for the semifinal normally. But India's training on Wednesday was a little more than the usual.
Football plays a big role in the warming up process. The Indians use a soccer ball that has Barcelona's traditional colours, scarlet and blue. These colours have featured on the Spanish soccer giant's shirt for more than a 100 years and the club is widely known as the 'Blaugrana in reference to the names of these colours in the Catalan language.
Unlike the Australians or the England cricketers, India's cricket stars are not blessed with soccer skills. While skipper Dhoni is good at the game, he used to be a goalkeeper, the likes of Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina are quite nimble footed. Umesh Yadav, the big boy he is, can be the heavy and cynical tackler.
But it was not a day for football. In the order or priority, fielding drills were to prevail over batting and bowling. It was going be one long and intense session under Penney and the young team loved it.
The Salisbury-born Penny has worked as a specialist fielding coach with the English cricket team. He was a controversial substitute fielder used in the 2005 Ashes series. The 45-year-old Penney has played for Warwickshire as an all-rounder but was largely recognised for his fielding skills. He is now part of Duncan Fletcher's support staff.
Fielding drills can be fun and competitive. Divided into two groups, players win points for hitting the stumps with quick pick-ups and throws. There are points to be won for pouching various types of catches. Interestingly, quickie Vinay Kumar, who is yet to play a match, seemed to be getting the maximum direct hits. Ravindra Jadeja, Irfan Pathan and Kohli weren't very far behind.
Apart from consistent top-order batting, it's India's fielding that has stood out in this Champions Trophy. Dhoni has even gone to the extent of calling his unit the "world's best." Jadeja made a pertinent comment recently saying: "We don't have anyone to hide in the field."
Dhoni once gain harped on India's fielding during a mandatory media interaction in Cardiff on Wednesday. He explained the need to have 11 smart fielders. "Nowadays, fielding is very important. If the opposition is scoring 250-odd runs and if you can save 15 or 20 runs, it can have a big impact on the game. This was one aspect which was quite missing when it came to Indian cricket," Dhoni said.
"For us, it was more about the batting and bowling. This meant the skill of fielding was slightly missing. We still had good fielders, but the problem is when you don't have too many good fielders, you can't use them at too many places, and also you have to keep switching them, especially in the last few overs. And the best thing is most of them can field at slips. So I think it helps overall, especially the over-rate," said Dhoni.
Much of Wednesday's interaction was on India's back-room boys. Dhoni said India's success so far in the Champions Trophy - they are unbeaten in five games, including two warm-up matches - was also due to some excellent work by the support staff.
The skipper said the presence of Duncan Fletcher (coach), Penney and Joe Dawes (bowling coach) has helped him concentrate on finer team details and the dressing room camaraderie. Dhoni seems to be enjoying Fletcher's company as well. The former Zimbabwean cricketer and ex-England coach has already got a year's extension by the Indian Board and Dhoni says he deserves it.
"I think he loves the fact that the team has started to do well and also there are many youngsters who he needs to guide. So I think overall he's done really well with us and I am just very happy for him that we are going through a phase where we are doing well for him," Dhoni said.
The equation between players and its support staff is crucial to a team's progress in international cricket. The Champions Trophy experience seems to be acting like a great unifying factor for Team India.