In the last few days of the India cricket team’s camp in Bengaluru, the dominant topic was aggression, ‘buddies’, natural instinct, hope, consistency and victories. There was also some drumming up of camaraderie and bonding. Now, on the eve of the team’s departure for the challenging tour of West Indies, the time for talk is over. In the next few weeks India’s new head coach, Anil Kumble and energetic skipper Virat Kohli must walk the talk as they undertake a rather strange and peculiar sojourn to those famed ‘islands in the sun’.
Strange because the Caribbean Island nations are currently gripped by the fever of T20 cricket in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) which runs right up to 31 July. By then, India would be in the middle of the second of the four-Test series and there would be a less-than-expected local buzz about their tour owing to the simultaneous conducting of the more popular CPL.
While this surreal situation of a country hosting a Test series even as they are engrossed in their T20 tournament exhibits a bizarre state of affairs, it is nevertheless a true indicator of the lack of enthusiasm for the longer version of the game in the islands.
Many of their best cricketers are no longer interested in playing Test cricket. However their popularity among the followers of the T20 format is stupendous. The fact that the West Indies are the T20 world champions and that these cricketers play an exciting brand of the game has attracted all but the die-hard Test cricket aficionado to the thrill-a-ball wares of the CPL.
Under these circumstances coach Kumble and skipper Kohli should have it easy to notch up an a rare overseas wins.
But the challenge, for Kumble in particular, would be to ensure that the team stays in the present almost always, and takes the tour matches one session at a time. In the past Indian teams have played wonderful Test cricket, yet have ended up on the losing side owing to one bad session or two. The experienced Kumble would do well to ensure that the current team too does not fall into familiar traps against even a weakened West Indies team.
More than the action on the field, it is the trappings off it that make the Caribbean islands such a dangerous distraction for most teams. Every-day life is a non-stop party in many of these islands where sugar, alcohol, tourism, entertainment and off-shore banking have kept their economies in a relatively robust state.
It would be so easy to lose focus amidst the endless celebration and hence Kumble would have his hands full in keeping the team in the straight and narrow ways of Test cricket.
Some distraction can also be expected due to the presence of familiar faces from the IPL, who’d be in the thick of things at the simultaneously-conducted CPL. As it is, Shah Rukh Khan (Tringabo Knight Riders) and Vijay Mallya and possibly Reliance (Barbados Tridents) own CPL franchises while Hero Moto Corp are the title sponsors. Additionally, Robin Singh is the coach of Barbados Tridents. Hence there would be plenty of familiar personnel around. Staying focused on the Test tour would be a challenge for youngsters, but not for the more professional and seasoned stars like Kohli.
These factors apart, India are such overwhelming favorites that it would be difficult not to get carried away by expectations against a relatively lightweight West Indies side. Kumble would be very well aware that West Indies are capable of sudden spurts of individual brilliance and flair and these carry the potential to cause damage. Thus the onus would be on staying in the present and taking the Tests one session at a time.
The good news is that this Indian team possesses great variety and depth in bowling. There is pace, seam and swing in the form of Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Shardul Thakur and Stuart Binny; all varieties in the spin department consisting of Ravichandran Ashwin, Amit Mishra and Ravindra Jadeja. This gives Kumble and Kohli a great opportunity to pick the ideal bowlers for battles on the varied pitches of the islands.
Kohli towers over the rest in the batting department. However, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan are exceedingly capable. Wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha too is handy with the bat.
Thus Kumble and Kohli have all the ingredients to make this West Indies tour a resounding success. Once they get this out of the way their next clutch of battles, against New Zealand, England and Australia, would be in the familiar setting of home. It is for this reason that they must use every opportunity to make this tour of the Caribbean a memorable one and thus begin well.
Popular wisdom believes that a new broom sweeps clean, and the saying could apply to newly-appointed head coach Kumble, who has the opportunity to make a sweeping statement in the coming series to get his new job off to a flying start.