Virat Kohli was a triumphant man on the evening of 27 November, 2015. He had just won his first Test series as captain on home soil, and more memorably, had stopped South Africa’s nine-year unbeaten run away from home.
After muddling Proteas’ brains on a wicked turner in Mohali, and causing dangerous, if not deadly, mental incisions in Bengaluru, he had finally delivered the sucker punch on what Hashim Amla described as “probably the toughest” surface he has played on. As South Africa pored over the broken pieces of ego that lay glistening on the Nagpur dust, Kohli said something not many Indian captains had said before.
“I don't mind compromising on (batsmen's) averages as long as we are winning Test matches," he said, without delving on the third-day pitch that behaved worse than what a last session-fifth-day Indian track would. That was Kohli making his intent clear, without actually using the word that he suddenly seems to have stumbled upon for all practical purposes in South Africa.
Besides broadcasting his intent, the statement unwittingly solved a larger purpose. In one stroke of unadulterated bravado, it brushed aside all talks of Indian batsmen’s susceptibilities against quality pace, quality spin, and workable pace and workable spin–the last two on helpful surfaces. And so the template was set for the next home season that saw India trump opposition and egos, without so much as looking at the collateral damage.
Sure enough, the World No 1 team arrived in Cape Town with a bucketful of swagger and little answers. Like Roman Gladiators with giant egos and bulging chests, the Virat Kohli- Ravi Shastri tag-team seethed and puffed, happily pushing concerned calls to the backburner, opting to cancel the solitary preparatory fixture, choosing to skip the optional practice session on the match eve, and supremely confident of their skills and intent.
Between their bravado and the eventual ambush, Indian batsmen discovered that the tools they had brought to the battle were dodgy at best and ineffective at worst. Murali Vijay, the sedate opener adept at leaving balls outside the off-stump, somehow realised he needed to move towards the off-stump to cover the away swing. Never a big ‘mover’, this minor tweak messed up his judgement in Cape Town and he ended up playing more than leaving, and missing more than playing. Not surprisingly, he edged one to the slips.
Shikhar Dhawan was beaten multiple times on the drive before falling to an atrocious shot, and skipper Kohli too walked towards the off-stump to fend a short ball he would have left alone had he not moved as much.
South Africa soon found a way to deal with this, and the fact that they had the skills of Vernon Philander in Cape Town and Lungi Ngidi in Centurion was of obvious help. Both of them set the batsmen up perfectly with a series of outswingers before bringing one back in.
It’s an age-old trap, and batsmen are conditioned to look for the surprise delivery after a series of one-dimensional, innocuous balls. Yet, call it the accumulated muscle-memory of playing on tracks that offer little or no seam movement after the first half of first session, or the sheer pace and sharpness of movement, India were found wanting on multiple occasions.
The set-up was predictably repeated in the second Test with great success. No surprises there, but aside from falling to pace and movement, India, especially in the second Test, showed they don’t trust their defence much.
The fifth day of the second Test is a case in point. India were three down at stumps on the fourth day, and a lot of outsiders–media and fans–justifiably believed that the game was as good as over. The problem is, the Indian batting line-up also seemed to have believed that, for they looked in a hurry to end their misery. On a day where they were well-advised to take the game deep and play the situation, they chose to play their natural game; one that is built on scoring and not grinding. While there is nothing wrong in playing to score, which, after all, is the essence of batting, wearing the opposition down is an ungainly art that lays the foundation for the ‘natural game’ to take over.
Former India captain Rahul Dravid, who knows a thing or two about Test cricket, has gone on record explaining the need to play situations. “This concept of 'play your natural game', which I hear all the time, frustrates me because there's no such thing in my belief as 'natural game.' It's only about how you play different situations. Are you good enough to play when the score is 30 for 3, or 250 for 3? Are you good enough to bat when you go in first over or are you good enough to go in first ball after lunch?,” he had said last year.
Even during his playing days, he had delved into the importance of playing the situation. He, of course, walked the talk with rare distinction. Even Sachin Tendulkar’s majestic 241* in Sydney was not built on his ‘natural game’; it was, in fact, a masterclass in denial where he famously didn’t play a single cover drive.
The current lot, however, evidently wants to stamp its authority by way of flashing willows, exaggerated movements and maybe trying too many things.
Rohit Sharma, among the most contentious selections in both the Tests, has fallen to the incoming delivery on three of the four occasions already. The issue, apparently, is with his head falling over the ball. Hence, even while flicking from the middle and leg stump, he tends to hit in the air far too often. One such shot brought about his dismissal against New Zealand in a One-Day International (ODI) in Pune last year, when he flicked a leg-stump half-volley to waiting square-leg. While such glitches are less likely to hurt in sub-continent conditions (though not always, as the Pune dismissal illustrates), they are thoroughly exposed on tracks where the movement is sharper and faster.
Also, Parthiv Patel, Hardik Pandya, Ravichandran Ashwin and Rohit played a total of 141 balls on the fifth day in Centurion. Each of these batsmen has at least one first-class century to his name; three of them have even scored Test century, and yet, each of them fell trying to attack. Patel and Rohit mistimed their hooks to fine leg, Pandya chased a wayward delivery to the wicket-keeper, and Ashwin threw his bat at the ball that was pitched outside his off-stump and was going further away. There was hardly an attempt to build a partnership and take the game deep, perhaps because that’s the only way they can bat.
One of the two batsmen who could have worn down the opposition with his unglamourous cussedness, Cheteshwar Pujara, was run-out twice in the match, and it's only fair to ask if skipper’s call to show intent had something to do with his suicidal running.
The other batsman who has the game to last a complete day, as he has shown on multiple occasions abroad, sat out for the second Test running. Cruelly and crucially, Kohli thinks no one wants Rahane–India’s best overseas batsman by a fair distance–in the team. It was a similar call by the then captain MS Dhoni that cost Rahane his place in the ODI squad about three years back, and he has failed to cement it since. Tests, however, are different, and the value of old-fashioned grit never really goes out of fashion there.
The twin debacles must also bring the efficiency of support-staff in picture, and also if the team really needs a coach who thinks his primary job is to keep players in “good mental space”.
From the winning winter of 2015 to this, all questions – from winning in favourable conditions to playing on tracks that turned from Day 1 of the Tests–have been met with more questions: What can we do if the schedule is such? Are not all teams winning at home, and best of all, what’s the problem with pace and bounce? If Virat Kohli’s post-match presser in Centurion is an indication, all he is eventually left with now are even more questions and no answers – on selections, strategies, new balls, techniques, batting orders, bowling changes, field placements, slip-catching and most importantly, the definition of intent. The Indian captain may well add another to the list: Do his batsmen have the skill to survive overseas?