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‘Last series in SL changed Test fortunes’ – Virat Kohli.
When India were last in Sri Lanka, they were a team in transition. They had a new captain and the scars of back-to-back series defeats away from home were still fairly fresh. “We still remember, for us a as a squad, after the tour of Australia in 2014-15, we found ourselves at No. 7 in the world and from then on the transformation started,” Virat Kohli said as he cast his mind back.
India began that series in promising fashion, taking a 192-run first-innings lead in Galle, and then had Sri Lanka teetering on 95 for 5 in the second innings. But they squandered that position of strength to eventually lose by 63 runs. Yet another tour was starting to follow a painfully familiar pattern for India.
Only they went to Colombo and won both matches there – even the decider on a fast-bowler friendly pitch to secure their first series in Sri Lanka in 22 years. After landing in the country on Thursday, Kohli said that victory had given the team “belief”. It taught them “how to come together as a team” and “within I think 12 or 15 months from Australia, we were the No. 1 side in the world, we’d just touched it, but from then on we have solidified it. But I still believe, and so do everyone in the team, that this [Sri Lanka] is where it started for us. That particular series, after losing that Test in Galle, which was quite a dent for us, the way the team came together, I think was iconic, as far as where we’ve come in the last two years has been concerned.”
Some of Kohli’s pride stemmed from the fact that India had beaten a well-drilled Sri Lankan side. “What we told our group was, ‘what matters is how much you believe more than the opposition’. You might have played 100 games, but if a guy who has played 10 games has more belief than you, then he’s going to end up doing better on the field’.”
The core of that 2015 squad has once again come to the island, for three Tests, five ODIs and and a T20I, but there are question marks hanging over some of them. M Vijay, originally picked among the touring party, was forced to withdraw after a recurrence of his wrist injury. As a result, India’s openers are likely to be two of Shikhar Dhawan, who has not played Tests since October 2016, KL Rahul, who has spent the best part of 2017 with a shoulder injury and Abhinav Mukund, who made 0 and 16 in his first Test in five years in March.
“Injuries are an unfortunate part of sport, any sport in the world,” Kohli said. “Vijay was back with his rehab, but he played a game and he felt he wasn’t up there and that’s credit to him for conveying it to the selectors and being honest in telling us that he wouldn’t be able to be match fit because there’s a lot riding on a Test match.
“Abhinav has done really well in domestic cricket. Shikhar, when he came here last time, he got a hundred as well. Then he had to miss a couple of games. [Cheteshwar] Pujara opened in the last Test in the last series that we played here. So guys have started seeing such scenarios as opportunities and not as pressure scenario because now they feel privileged and they want to have any opportunity to play for the country and everyone wants to make a mark. No one wants to sit on the sidelines and watch other people go on with their business. I’m sure these guys are hungry
“And Shikhar’s coming back as well after being left out of the Test squad. He’s done really well in the Champions Trophy, he’s batting beautifully. Abhinav is very solid in his technique and Rahul, obviously, has been a champion opener for us. So all these guys are coming back really hungry because we haven’t played any Test cricket after February.”
But rust is a thing in world cricket, so is switching formats – India have been playing ODI and T20 cricket for the past five months. India will have to overcome these complications quickly and one way to do so, according to Kohli, is to make sure a player trains rigorously in the lead-up to the first match.
“I feel you need to physically condition yourself before Test matches, and then as soon as the game starts, the mental preparation, whatever you’ve done, you can sit down and think about the game. You have to put in the hard yards, thinking if you have to bat for four sessions, five sessions, physically you have to be up there, because playing limited-overs cricket, that can drop down because the demands are not that high.
“Playing short-format cricket, you can still think about Test cricket, but you won’t prepare in that manner because you are not prepared to do so because you don’t have to do so much work. But in Test matches, it’s a different ball game altogether, the way you eat, the way you hydrate, most importantly, the way you practice.
“As a professional cricketer, you have to jump from format to format. But I’m sure the guys who’ve only played Test cricket till February, and who haven’t had so much cricket after that, I’m sure they’ve had long sessions back home. Pujara has played some [county] games, all these guys have been batting for a while, training hard as well. So once the game starts, the groove kicks back in. You just need the game to start and everything falls into place.
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Reminiscing about his first captaincy test, he felt that it was a “landmark tour” for his side as they embarked on a long journey which ultimately ended with them being crowned the number one Test side. Kohli credited the 2015 tour for instilling a winning culture in the team and the ability to bounce back from any situation thrown at them.
“That tour for us was a landmark tour because the players have matured from then on. It’s been 24 months since then, but that tour was the start of our belief system that we can win away from home,” Kohli said. “We do have the side required to win away from home and we do have the culture that has been created in the team to win whatever Test matches or series that we play. The mindset was to try and win the series. Losing the first Test was a shock to us but the way we bounced back was only because of the team culture created at that stage. We showed more belief in our abilities and that we could win from any situation and from then on you could see the results that we have had so far. The same mindset would apply now what we started back in 2015.”
A lot has happened in the last two-three months in Indian cricket. The recent ugly fiasco that played out between him and ex-India coach Anil Kumble doesn’t seem to have put Kohli off. Instead, the Indian captain felt that he was fully focused on what he can control and not worry about the speculation and all sorts of rumours floating around.
“I only have the bat in hand and my job is to go out there and control what’s been done on the field,” he said. “That’s something that I have focused on in the last couple of months and I continue to do so, lot of speculation and things fly around – those things are not in my control. (I) try to bring the best out of this team along with the management and try to perform to the best of my abilities which I believe.”
When asked if there was any added pressure on him after the recent events, Kohli sounded a tad philosophical when he said, “I don’t think there is any added pressure. What has to happen will happen, I believe in that. As a team we aspire to achieve what we want to achieve. Being criticised is nothing new – we understand that aspect of playing the sport as well. I certainly don’t take any added pressure. You just need to take care of your mindset and move forward.”
‘Shastris, Kumbles will come and go; fabric of Indian cricket will remain’
Ravi Shastri who was recently appointed as India’s head coach, having previously worked as team director, was all bullish about the future and reckoned that he doesn’t come with “any baggage.” Also, he felt that all the credit should go to the team which has become number one in Tests on the back of a consistent run against the top sides.
“I have matured since I last went to Sri Lanka and I have matured immensely in the last two weeks. Mine will be a refresh button that will be pushed. I don’t come with any baggage. The team has done exceedingly well over three years and they are the people who deserve the credit more than anyone else. These Ravi Shastris, Anil Kumbles will come and go. The fabric of Indian cricket will remain. If they are number one today, it’s their efforts they have put in over that three-year period and they deserve the credit. People like us will come and go,” Shastri said.
When questioned why Bharat Arun was chosen as India’s bowling coach, Shastri defended his former team-mate’s outstanding 15-year track record and went on to praise his work during their previous stint together. “There’s a track record – 15 years his life has been coaching. You look at that track record – it’s outstanding, right from junior level to A teams to Indian junior World Cup teams, he’s been part of – he knows these boys better than I do, because he’s been in the system for the last 15 years.
“You look at the last World Cup – India took 77 out of 80 wickets. If Bharat Arun’s name was someone else, who has played a lot of Test cricket – you would’ve put him on top of the tree. I don’t need to elaborate too much on what he is good at, what are his strengths, it’s there for everyone to see,” Shastri concluded.
India skipper Virat Kohli wants the side to focus on their own strengths and doing things right regardless of the nature of the opposition ahead of the next game against West Indies.
St John’s, Antigua: Antigua, where driving 11 miles on either side brings you to the sea, is so tranquil that apart from the sonorous sound made by tree frogs and crickets together, you hear nothing.
It gives, as India skipper Virat Kohli said on the day of arrival in the Caribbean, a relaxed atmosphere so needed right after the intense Champions Trophy. In a way, this isolation could be a blessing in disguise for the Indian team that had been riven by the coach-captain discord.
Walking through the tiny and unassuming village town of St John’s, you get to know from the ice cream vendor what flavour Sir Viv Richards prefers when he drops in for a shake, and get to know easily where Curtly Ambrose is playing the bass next, and of course the casino he’ll be visiting.
It is quiet with former star cricketers doing their things without making news even though they breathed fire during their playing days.
Current West Indian paceman Alzarri Joseph too comes from one of the villages that makes up the island and although quick, he hasn’t been able to make an impact in the two ODIs and the one-dayers before. He troubled the India U-19s at the junior World Cup, bursting into limelight, and last year scalped Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in the Test at Gros Islet.
His shambolic performance here, however, reflects the state West Indies cricket is in. So for a top class side like India, this lack of competition is also a test.
The second ODI looked more like being played at two different levels. India batted superbly whereas West Indies behaved like an associate nation looking to just bat out the overs even though they were just 43.
In such a situation, what is the motivation?
Skipper Virat Kohli says it is about following the processes and the standard they have set just to ensure they don’t lose track. At the moment, West Indies are lying in the ninth position with a 16-point difference against the next best, eighth placed Sri Lanka.
“For us, it about doing the things that we can do right and executing our skills to the best of our potential. Regardless of how the opposition reacts we want to do things right from our point of view, keep putting in the effort every ball, every over we play with the bat and the ball, in the field as well,” says Kohli.
“That’s the kind of mindset we take on the field. Regardless of what the opposition is doing we like to focus on our strengths.”
This, however, is also an opportunity to sort out weak links too. The middle order appears brittle and under pressure it cracked in the Champions Trophy final. By handing the opportunity to Kuldeep Yadav and by pushing Hardik Pandya up the batting order, Kohli made his intentions known.
A total of 300 runs isn’t enough these days as a target, as was proved against Sri Lanka in Champions Trophy, and the skipper is already working on setting the bar high. He smashed 87 off 66 balls and sent in Pandya ahead of Yuvraj and Dhoni.
“Kedar and Hardik haven’t got much game time in the past. The more games they get under their belt and more experience they get it will be good. They are actually consistently striking every game and more experience they get, then as a middle order group you can begin to go after the bowling early,” says the Indian captain.
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