Earlier this week South African cricketer Hashim Amla posted a photo in which he is standing in the slips, with three layers of sweaters, a beanie, his hands placed deep in his pocket and his head looking heavenly in desperate search for the rays of the sun. Quite appropriately the photo is titled ‘My coldest day ever on the cricket field’.
It sums up county cricket in May. It is a time the bowlers hoop the dark duke balls around corners, the seam movement is prodigious and the batsmen find out that the ball tends to hit the edges more than the middle of the bat.
In a month, however the layers of clothing will reduce, beanie will be stripped from the head and the batsmen will start to flourish.
It will also be the time that Virat Kohli will arrive in England to start his stint with the English county Surrey to prepare himself for the Test series at the back end of the English summer. Plenty of debate has raged over Kohli’s preference of playing in county cricket and missing the Test match against Afghanistan, but everyone, from the administrators to the coaching staff and most importantly, Kohli himself, feels the time is just right.
In terms of succeeding and gaining practice in England, Kohli could not have timed his trip any better. The nature of the pitches, the weather, the anticipation and the expectations will imitate exactly what he will confront when the Test series gets underway on the first day of August. It will be ideal preparation and that is exactly what Kohli wants to achieve during his stint in the domestic circuit.
Technically, he will understand the behaviour of the pitches, the movement with the new or the old ball and the shots that he can execute against certain types of bowlers. Above all the dampness in the pitches would have reduced, giving him the best opportunity to score runs and gain in confidence.
Kohli might have been exposed four years ago against the moving ball, but during his growth as a player he has often stated that for him to excel, it is about the mindset and scoring runs rather than being absorbed by the technique.
The bowling he will confront might not be of the highest calibre, but for Kohli it is just gaining that confidence in those conditions. He is a master at thriving on belief. The runs he scores will dictate his form during the series and by going in June, he has given himself the best possibility of prospering in conditions that are likely to be replicated.
On the contrary is Kohli’s teammate Cheteshwar Pujara. The Indian No 3 has already been in England for over a month and on the evidence of his low scores this season, he is still coming to grips with the prodigious movement that is on offer during the early part of the season.
While the critics might argue it is unlikely that Pujara will witness such conditions in three months time when the first Test gets underway in Birmingham, it also raises the question: Is Pujara really mirroring conditions that he will experience during the five Test series? More importantly, how will his confidence be in August if the big scores do not eventuate between now and the end of July.
Then to counter that argument, there is the case where Kohli could have to confront extreme conditions during the five Tests. But such is the Indian captain's belief that with runs under his belt, he will have the faith and the conviction in his batting.
Travelling to England and playing county cricket certainly helps each cricketer, but it’s equally important for them to pick the right time. Pujara's ideologies are different to that of Kohli. Pujara’s exposure and his experience on the damp April-May pitches to the spicy England pitches will only prepare him against the new ball and the skills he has acquired will only ensure Kohli is not exposed against James Anderson and Stuart Broad early in the innings.
While it is always the batsmen that are under the pump in England, the bowlers will also need to ensure they are acclimatised to the duke ball and the seaming pitches. Ishant Sharma has already been a shining light for Sussex since landing in April. Like batsmen, the bowlers too like having wickets under their belt and bowling on seaming decks at the start of county season will only have enhanced Ishant’s confidence.
Apart from the technical side of the game, it is the responsibilities of an overseas player in the domestic teams that also teaches players about taking ownership of their games. Players that have travelled to England in the past have stated it has taught them to be consistent and be more accountable of their games because of the extra demand that comes with an overseas player.
The county stint also allows an Indian cricketer to live outside the glamorous and opulence boundaries they experience at home. Last season Pujara felt he was able to ‘be himself’ not be constantly in the spotlight or be surrounded by the confines of the four walls of the dressing room.
Many budding and established cricketers believe the experience of having to do things on your own and to be able to live outside the cricketing bubble during county stints has transformed their games.
In the past year, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ishant Sharma and Pujara have been developing their games in the domestic circuit. Next month, Kohli, arguably the most prized county signing in over the decade, will attempt to sharpen his skills. But the real answer on how effective the county stints are will only be defined by the score in the Test series.
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