3 years

Cricket

A Score to Settle

Boria Majumdar is a sports journalist and author
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A Test series win in England will prove Kohli’s India worthy of their top rank in the format

IT WAS JUST after lunch at Lord’s in the first Test of the 2011 series and India, 50-over world champions and the world’s number one Test side at the time, were reduced to seeing their captain take off his wicket-keeping gloves and mark his run up with the ball.

Zaheer Khan, India’s premier fast bowler, had hobbled out of the series with yet another hamstring injury and a hapless MS Dhoni could think of nothing better but to bowl himself. The result, needless to say, was an abject surrender. Crushed 4-0, India looked anything but the world’s best Test side. Except Rahul Dravid, with three fantastic hundreds, none of the other Indian batsmen played to potential, and by the end of the series in August 2011, the 50-over World Cup win back home in April seemed a distant memory.

The tale was similar in 2014, despite winning a Test at Lord’s this time around. Thanks to some excellent short-pitched bowling by Ishant Sharma, India took the series lead at the home of cricket—on a green-top, no less—only to lose the advantage in the very next game in Southampton. And by the time things came to the Oval for the fifth and final Test of the series, Dhoni’s men were a beaten side. Virat Kohli, talisman and captain in 2018, had the worst series of his career with Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad having his measure with quality swing bowling outside the off stump.

For Kohli and India, there are scores to settle once the five-match Test series begins on August 1st. They need to prove to fans back home that this Indian team, yet again touring England as the world’s top Test side, justly deserves the tag. With a fast-bowling attack that is every bit as good as that of England’s, Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri will want to do what Rahul Dravid did in 2007: beat England in England and stamp their authority in the format that really matters to the English cricket-watching public.

The upcoming series is a moment of reckoning for Kohli in many ways. A proud sportsman with a work ethic less to none, Kohli had spent a week with his idol Sachin Tendulkar soon after he went back from England in 2014. While Tendulkar refuses to divulge details of what the two had worked on during Kohli’s week-long stay in Mumbai, the results were there to be seen in the very next away series in Australia. Down Under in the 2014-15 Test series, Kohli struck four hundreds in four Test matches – a feat that saw him surpass even Tendulkar as a Test batsman in Australia.

Kohli needs to prove to fans back home that this Indian Team, yet again touring England as the world's Number One test side, justly deserving the tag

Since then Kohli has only gone from strength to strength. His batting during the South Africa series in January this year had left the world in awe. On a treacherous Wanderers track against a hostile South African pace attack led by a rampaging Kagiso Rabada, Kohli looked every bit the ‘monk in a civil world’ that he so desperately wants to be. It was him and his bat in the 22 yards. Nothing else seemed to faze the Indian captain. No bowler could pose a threat and multiple injuries and blows to the body notwithstanding, Kohli played cricket of a very different quality.

“His desire to win is infectious. Even at tea on the final day in the third Test when South Africa was just 3 down with a 100 to get, Virat was confident and said we are winning this Test match,” says coach Ravi Shastri. “He gives his bowlers a lot of the confidence,” says Bharat Arun, India’s bowling coach. “All we tell the bowlers is that when [they are] at the top of their mark, they need to plan what they want to bowl. And then just execute the plan to perfection. If the batsman plays a good shot, it is fine. But all our bowlers should back their strengths to deliver.”

For the first time in South Africa, India’s bowlers picked all 60 opposition wickets on offer in a three-match Test series. Of these 60, the four-pronged fast bowling attack accounted for 50. “Jasprit Bumrah was the find of the series for us,” said Kohli. “I have spoken to AB de Villiers and the other South African batsmen and all of them said he was the most difficult to face. It was tough to believe he was playing in his debut Test series,” declared an elated Kohli.

Despite Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s absence due to injury, Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and Ishant Sharma should be a handful, with the sharp pace of Hardik Pandya as an able back-up. Surely, Kohli’s fast-bowling armoury is the best India have ever had. With Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Kohli himself making up a formidable batting group, it is no surprise that experts like Ian Chappell are calling India favourites going into the Pataudi Trophy.

James Anderson, England’s premier fast bowler, nursing a sore shoulder, played last for his country in the first week of June. If he isn’t fully fit, it will be a real struggle for England to be at their best and ready in time to take on Kohli and his boys in Birmingham for the first Test. An underdone Anderson can have a telling impact on the series against a resurgent India, who would have been in the country for well over a month by then. Even though the Indians started with white-ball cricket, they have had enough time to acclimatise and adjust to the conditions by the time the Test series starts.

“We are not there to give any excuses. Conditions will be the same for both teams,” says coach Shastri. It is a telling statement that sums up the teams’ mindset. More because Kohli’s India will not be overawed by a green wicket or an overcast English autumn. Some of them, like Pujara, have played county cricket in tougher conditions back in May, while some others would have toured with the India A team to be fully ready. They know this is their big chance—an opportunity to catapult themselves to greatness that very few Indians have aspired to and subsequently achieved.

And we all know that skipper Kohli, already on the cusp of greatness, hates to come up second best. “This series will separate the good from the best,” says Sourav Ganguly before adding, “I believe Virat’s team has the ability to be the best in the world.” The question is: ‘Will they?’

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