“When I was a fighting man, the kettle drums they beat,
The people scattered gold-dust before my horse’s feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track,
With poison in my wine-cup and dagger at my back.”
Robert E Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, may well have written these lines for Virat Kohli, the Team India skipper.
Arguably the world’s best batsman at the moment, he'd be feeling a bit uneasy with the captaincy crown on his head — of the number one Test team in the world — after India’s dismal showing in the Perth Test last week. Kohli’s leadership skills have not only been questioned by Indian fans after that defeat, but quite a few former players have even called for his head.
While Kohli has been perceived as an arrogant player and leader, there are former players like Allan Border who feel that modern cricket needs characters like him. His animated behaviour on the ground, on the fall of a wicket, may show his passion for the game but it doesn’t go down well with most traditionalists. In fact, experts believe that his on-field histrionics affect his thought process and often lead him to making wrong decisions.
The question is, after that demoralising defeat in the second Test, can this Indian side stage a fight-back in the Boxing Day Test match at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)? Can Kohli, helped by coach Ravi Shastri and the entire coaching staff, motivate India’s seemingly hapless players to draw on their mental reserves, to get up and fight again?
For the record, India has never won a Boxing Day Test match. In seven Tests played at the MCG since 1985, Australia has won five and two have been drawn. However, prior to 1985, when the MCG Test wasn’t played on Boxing Day, India had managed to win two matches out of the five played since 1948 – one in 1978 by 222 runs, and the other in 1981 by 59 runs. Perhaps, Kohli’s team can draw strength from these Bishan Singh Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar-led teams to get back into the ring on equal terms.
The tradition of the Boxing Day Test match began in the Ashes series of 1974-75. In order to accommodate six Tests on that tour, the third Test at MCG was scheduled to start on 26 December. It was only in 1980 though that MCG and the Australian cricket team were given the annual rights for a Boxing Day Test match. India’s first Boxing Day Test was in 1985, which ended in a draw. That year, the spectator count on the first day was 18,146. In 2011 and 2014, around 70,000 fans thronged the MCG stands to watch India play on the day after Christmas.
The Boxing Day Test match has its own pressures. ‘Tis the season to be merry, and Down Under – in what is the southern summer – it is the family’s day out for Melbournians. The huge turnout can be intimidating, especially for those who haven’t played at the MCG before. Add to that, the morale of the Indian team, as a whole, is at its lowest. The beleaguered Australians, with Steve Smith and David Warner missing, were expected to be steamrolled by the Indians. Even Gavaskar had predicted that India would end up winning three of the four Tests. But, after a thumping win at Perth, Australian tails are up and the Indians now need to watch out because the home team has tasted blood after a long time.
This Indian team, with Kohli and Shastri at the helm, has perhaps been guilty of over-promising. Despite losing away series in South Africa and in England, the coach had billed his team as the best travelling bunch of cricketers he had seen in the last 20 years. Experts and the media too have been guilty of over-hyping the team’s capabilities.
Despite possessing the best pace attack India has ever had, the repeated failures of Murali Vijay and KL Rahul at the top, Rohit Sharma’s disappointing tryst with Tests and injuries to Prithvi Shaw, Ravichandran Ashwin and others have really tested the team’s mettle in Australia.
What’s more, the team management has repeatedly made selection blunders and misread conditions. In the Perth Test, for example, where off-spinner Nathan Lyon picked eight wickets in the two innings – and was declared man-of-the-match – India decided to go in with four bowlers and a half; Ishant Sharma, Mohd Shami, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah, with Hanuma Vihari as the make-shift spinner! The addition of Ravi Jadeja in the squad could perhaps have strengthened India’s batting, and of course, he would have picked some useful wickets.
For ages, Indian fans, experts and the media have had this habit of nit-picking when the Indian cricket team performs badly. In the Perth Test when Ishant Sharma and Jadeja had an on-field argument, it was surmised that there were internal feuds in the team. Fast bowlers, by nature, are short-tempered. Therefore to cast aspersions on the team because of a small, on-field incident would be unfair to the players. Shastri, therefore, has his work cut out before India take on the upbeat Australians at the MCG.
In contrast to Perth, the MCG track is expected to be slower and less bouncy; the sort of track that Indian players are more accustomed to. The conditions in Melbourne will therefore be to India’s advantage. What worries Indian fans is, however, the Indian players’ mindset after the reversal in the second Test. Patience in batting, disciplined bowling and extraordinary fielding will help India recover lost ground. However, to win at MCG, the Indian players will, more importantly, have to get into the right frame of mind.
Kohli, Shastri and the tour selectors will also have to take some tough decisions for the Boxing Day Test. Non-performing players will have to sit out – talent or no talent. A new, fresh thinking will need to be infused in the playing eleven; one that believes that the series is still there to be taken.
My team for the Boxing Day Test match will be, in batting order: 1. Mayank Agarwal 2. Parthiv Patel (wk) 3. Cheteshwar Pujara 4. Virat Kohli (c) 5. Ajinkya Rahane 6. Hanuma Vihari 7. Hardik Pandya 8. Ravichandran Ashwin 9. Mohd Shami 10. Kuldeep Yadav 11. Jasprit Bumrah.
This selection will be tough on a few players. However, if Indian cricket fans need a ‘gift’ this Christmas season, the Indian team’s think tank will need to take some radical decisions. I, for one, believe that India can win the Boxing Day Test if the tour selectors are a wee bit more creative.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a mental toughness trainer