When you hear a cricket captain talk for long enough, repeatedly, certain quirks become easily identifiable. Any English captain will invariably talk about long and hectic schedules. In three press conferences on this Indian tour, Alastair Cook has talked about it four times. Yes, we get it – England play a lot of cricket. Well, so do others.
MS Dhoni has some quirks. Among them, the most prominent is his ability to give convoluted answers. It is tough to get a straight reply from him. Round and round he goes, and you search hard for that one relevant sentence pertaining to the question.
Virat Kohli has one too. Surprisingly enough, it has developed early in his short captaincy reign. It is about the Galle Test, against Sri Lanka, in 2015. He likes to talk about it. A lot.
Just counting this season, Kohli talked about it in Antigua, where the 17-Test long run began. He referenced the use of five bowlers in Galle, and how he would like to use the best bowling combination available to him.
He spoke about it in Trinidad, and then in Kanpur ahead of the first Test against New Zealand, for India changed over from their five-bowler theory to only four bowlers plus an extra batsman.
He talked about it in Rajkot then, as India reverted to playing five bowlers against England’s lengthy batting line-up. Kohli didn’t mention it in Visakhapatnam, but then again brought it up before the third Test in Mohali.
Obviously, that Test – or its result – has had a keen impact on Kohli’s psyche. He was leading India for only the fourth time, and this was the start of a first full Test series as captain for him. Like with any other on-field situation, it can be assumed that Kohli took it as a challenge – one he wanted to conquer of course – and this setting brought out its own learning.
Let us rewind to that game last year – Sri Lanka won the toss and opted to bat on a raging turner. India put them in all sorts of trouble, before the turn-around came in the second innings, as Dinesh Chandimal benefitted from a few dubious umpiring calls and scored an epic 167. India faced a target of 176, and collapsed to 112 all out on Day four.
Those umpiring calls perhaps first professed the DRS idea to Kohli. But this is about more than just about urging the BCCI to use this system. Instead, it is about what a young captain possibly thought at different junctures during that Test, and how it has come to impact his psyche in a colossal manner.
During both Lankan innings, the question of the fifth bowler came up. Harbhajan Singh was under-utilised in the first innings, and it was his spell in the second that Chandimal cut loose. This Test also saw the last episode of ‘Rohit Sharma as No 3’ experiment. Most of all, it told Kohli that five full-time batsmen are not enough to do the job on a pitch turning square.
Now, let’s rewind to Port of Spain. Kohli changed his ploy in that fourth Test in the Caribbean meaning it to be a dry run for the seven-four combination, but was washed out. Back home, it makes for some wonder if this was a ploy to counter the Kiwis’ three-spinner attack. Sure, the pitches were different from Galle or even the ‘doctored’ ones from South Africa series last season. Winning the tosses helped too, but when India had the chance to enforce the follow-on in Indore, and risk batting fourth, they baulked at it.
Again, it isn’t about whether India can play spin or not. Rather, it is about how their captain goes about firming up his combinations with a rider. Put it simply, that Galle loss has made such an impression on his thinking that Kohli uses it as a definitive marker for his team selection. Particularly, when his preferred combination – batting and/or bowling – comes unstuck.
He takes a studious approach to the conditions on offer, and weighs his options carefully. Five bowlers is par for course on most occasions, and if he feels four are enough, the seventh batsman comes in. The underlying point is that Kohli isn’t afraid of change, and backs his team – and himself as captain – to adapt the differentiation in key personnel within the timeframe of five days. After all, 20 different elevens in 20 successive Tests cannot simply be a coincidence.
This is where the England series comes into sharp focus. In Rajkot, Kohli went with a batsman short. The highway-nature of that pitch demanded so. Surprisingly enough, he kept at it in Vizag. Meanwhile, everyone expected that pitch to crumble. It didn’t, and thus the Indian skipper read it right. That’s been a key aspect of this series – the pitches haven’t really behaved in the manner anticipated (which is a good thing nonetheless.)
We now know that Mohali followed the standard set in Rajkot and Vizag. The pitch didn’t break up, at all. However, in the build-up to the third Test, the noise created by the English camp – accentuated by their traveling media – indicated something else entirely. With KL Rahul pulling out at the last moment it proved to be a peculiar situation for Kohli in terms of selection.
The Indian skipper perhaps bought into the pitch jingoism as well as the toss debate. In that light, Parthiv Patel provided the optimal solution as Kohli went in with six batsmen and five bowlers. He could bring in an extra bat – in debutant Karun Nair – and not compromise on his bowling combination.
As such, the performance of the lower order needs to be underlined. They have been primed to contribute with the bat, and they did. The upward graph of their performances (over the past year or so) indicates the team management’s preparedness for such a repeat eventuality. Moreover, it also points to the captain’s awareness that their contributions help alleviate any potential threats to the fourth innings. Thus, despite losing the toss, it played into India’s hands, because they had all bases covered.
“The first two days of the game were exactly we wanted to do as a Test team. When you are put in trouble after losing the toss on a good wicket, the bowlers stand up. Then on Day 2, you are 156/5 and then your lower order steps up. It’s something that we’ve learnt from in the past and the guys have shown the improvement. It shows that are keen to improve on the mistakes that can happen,” said Kohli, after the eight-wicket victory, in reference to the Galle Test again.
This win reflects a cognisance of the task at hand, when losing the toss and bowling first. Mohali didn’t follow the Galle script, indicating certain progression. And now, perhaps the young Indian skipper can start to move on.