When Virat Kohli walked into the pre-match press conference ahead of the first T20I at Manchester, it was but inevitable that he would be asked about his poor 2014 tour here. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t the first question but the eighth. His answer, meanwhile, was fully expected.
“I haven’t set any personal goals for this trip. I want to enjoy this tour. Whether I score runs or not doesn’t matter, as long as the team does well,” he had said, pouring cold water over the anticipation of a fiery answer. Since then, James Anderson, Alec Stewart, Ravi Shastri, Sourav Ganguly, Darren Gough and every one else who matters (or doesn’t matter) in the context of this England-India series has expressed their opinion on the matter.
At least, they all agree – he needs to score runs for India to win this five-Test series. Even so, Kohli cannot do it all on his own.
The Dhawan conundrum: To succeed in England, India need to pick the right opening combination first of all. Shikhar Dhawan is a real worry herein, for the left-hander has never really lasted an entire overseas Test series featuring more than two matches. In England (2014), he was dropped after three Tests. In Australia (2014), he was dropped after three Tests again. In South Africa (2018), he was dropped after the first Test.
The problem herein pertains to his lack of consistency on harder, bouncier tracks where the balls moves as well. As the tour game against Essex showed, he simply lacks the technique to counter the swinging ball, and got out for a pair in two innings facing four balls in total. Ideally, that should put him out of contention. But is it that simple to drop a batsman who scored 107 off 96 balls in his last Test, albeit against Afghanistan at home?
The Pujara problem: At Essex, as the ball swung on a green-top wicket, India were reduced to 5/2 with Cheteshwar Pujara also failing to comprehend the match conditions. It was a throwback to the 2014 here when he scored only 222 runs in five Tests at 22.20. His poor showing didn’t come into the spotlight owing to Kohli’s massive failure in that series.
There is no denying that the current tour – this series – is very vital for Pujara’s future. He failed to get going in South Africa as India were left looking for support to Kohli from the other end. If he doesn’t get going, a reputation of flat-track bully might be attributed to this otherwise supreme batsman. Even so, the signs aren’t very healthy. He hasn’t had a great summer of red-ball cricket, managing only 172 runs in six matches for Yorkshire without even a half-century. He scored a mere 35 against Afghanistan at home, and fell for 23 runs in the second innings at Essex. Could this be ground enough to drop him and retain Dhawan, with a new face at number three?
The Rahul, Vijay & Rahane influence: KL Rahul is poised to be play this first Test. Let one rephrase that – he should play the Birmingham Test. If there was ever a case for an in-form batsman to walk into the playing eleven, this is it. If Rohit Sharma could edge ahead of Ajinkya Rahane on the basis of form in South Africa, surely this is a no-brainer.
The question to ask is whether he will come in ahead of Dhawan or Pujara. One school of thought says that India should pick their best opening combination, on both merit and form. It would obviously mean that Rahul opens with Murali Vijay. The other school of thought says that Rahul should bat at number three, for he can drop anchor if (and when) Dhawan falls early as well as give momentum to the innings as well. Simply put, he has more ‘intent’ than Pujara.
Then, there is the small matter of Vijay and Rahane. If Rahul’s contributions are of paramount importance in this series, then these two batsmen ascertain similar stature based on their past experiences on English soil. Vijay faced 1000-plus balls to score 402 runs on the 2014 tour here, and such depth against the moving Duke ball is a most desirable quality.
Rahane lit up the Lord’s Test with a magnificent hundred on a raging green top, thus setting up India’s victory, and scored 299 runs in five Tests with another two half-centuries. While both made important contributions, there is a feeling of unfinished business herein. Vijay and Rahane ought to have kicked on from those brilliant starts to their respective series, but it didn’t happen. It should this time, for they posses the key traits of patience and judgment to exert their influence in English conditions.
The Kohli dependency: If Vijay, Rahul and Rahane can make sizeable and consistent contributions with the bat, it will allow the lower middle order more freedom. The likes of Dinesh Karthik, R Ashwin and Hardik Pandya will be able to bat without the burden of resurrecting the innings, like we saw time and again in South Africa. Particularly Pandya, for he is in the Jos Buttler mould albeit a lesser batsman at present, yet can seriously take the attack to the opposition.
Most of all, any success garnered by the top-order trio will only help ease India’s dependency on Kohli. This aspect is of paramount importance, as weirdly enough, such a high-profile series is pivoted on the form of one batsman. Yes, there is no denying that Kohli’s contributions are vital if India are to win, irrespective of format or conditions. Does this mount additional pressure – or responsibility even – on the star batsman?
Refer to his aforementioned words in Manchester, and while he appeared statesman-like, Kohli also managed to deflect attention for some time because the limited-overs’ leg was to be played first. There is no hiding now that his rivalry with James Anderson is the talk-of-the-town now, and as the England pacer said earlier, it does matter whether Kohli scores runs or not.
Sure, things have changed from 2014 to 2018 – Anderson is older, Kohli is fitter than ever, and has grown in stature as a cricketer. It underlines that everything Kohli is today stems from the fact that he is a world-beating batsman who has defied, nay subjugated, bowling attacks in every country. Bar one, in England, and to register a Test series’ win here as captain, the batsman in Kohli will have to rise to prominence.
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