Cape Town (South Africa), January 2018: The New Year’s Test is underway. With the mighty Table Mountain in the backdrop of cricket’s most scenic ground, on an overcast day, clouds wrap around the mountain like a table cloth, symbolising the stranglehold the South African team has over its opponents at Newlands. Only the Australians have penetrated this bastion in recent times; the sell-out crowd performing the twelfth man role for the home side in a carnival-like atmosphere. Virat Kohli, the Indian captain, wears a forlorn look on his face. South Africa, at 570/4 in its first innings, has batted India out of the match. India’s fast bowlers have let their team down with their inconsistency, and Kohli realises his team will be trailing the opposition throughout the series. It’s an all too familiar feeling. He thinks back to Australia 2014, his first series as captain, when some brave batting was outshone by erratic bowling from his seamers. He is defeated inside, yet has to put on a brave face for the media and pretend his side still has a chance in the series.
All this is possible 14 months from now. But if he is to avoid this fate, he needs to build a fast bowling attack capable of taking 20 wickets. Time is most definitely not on his side.
We have seen this plot play out time and time again. On the eve of every foreign Test tour, there is renewed, but false hope for India. A spark ignites deep in the heart of the Indian fan. The same fan that defends India’s honour against those who claim India’s Test record overseas is shameful; who realises winning at home isn’t enough to becoming the best in the world. The same fan who withdraws in disappointment when India returns home bruised, battered and beaten from an overseas tour.
Kohli has an opportunity to change this narrative and carve for himself a place among the great Test captains of all time. But how? While India’s home record is unquestionable, it has never won a Test Series in Australia or South Africa. Sporadic tastes of victory overseas such as those under Ajit Wadekar, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni will not cut it: Kohli must start planning to build a side capable of consistently winning away from home.
As Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli himself showed on the last round of tours, India’s batting has the firepower to succeed in overseas conditions. But, can Kohli have the same reliance on his fast bowlers? That is the conundrum the Indian captain faces. Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami are India’s best. Ishant has experience, but has underperformed throughout his career. Bhuvi is effective in swinging conditions, but does he have the pace to trouble South African and Australian batsmen in their home conditions? Shami is the pick of the three, but he too can improve on his consistency of line and length. What options does Virat Kohli have then?
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For starters, India needs a fast bowling group of five, which means Kohli needs to look for two more. Mumbai seamer Shardul Thakur and Rajasthan seamer Nathu Singh are touted as the two brightest prospects in India. Thakur has the ability to hit the deck hard and swing the ball away from the right-hander. His eight wickets in the Ranji final against a Saurashtra side that included Pujara is testament to this ability. Singh on the other hand, was trained by Glenn McGrath at the MRF Pace Academy, who said he was “very good and had a willingness to learn”. If India is to have a successful pace battery, these boys need to be thrown in the deep end.
Further, this group of five must be sent to England for a season of county cricket. It’s the only overseas season that doesn’t conflict with India’s home Test season. However, a third of the County Championship games coincide with the IPL. Kohli and Kumble will have to convince the BCCI of the long-term benefits of excusing this group from an IPL season. They would have to be compensated for lost earnings. Easier said than done, but desperate times call for desperate measures and Kohli must continue to make bold decisions if his side is to stand a chance overseas.
A season of county cricket gives a bowler match practice day after day and an opportunity to learn from seasoned county professionals. The three most successful Indian fast bowlers – Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan – all benefited from such stints. Kapil went on to help India claim the World Cup following his first season in England; Srinath improved his Test average from 38 to 28 after joining Gloucestershire in 1995; and Zak averaged 27 in Tests for five years after heading to England in 2006.
The second reinforcement is to bring on a bowling coach of the caliber of an Alan Donald or Jason Gillespie. It’s important to look for a coach who has the experience of succeeding at test level and a strong coaching track record. Sreesanth acknowledged that Alan Donald’s coaching at Warwickshire taught him “how to bring the ball in, where to bowl, how to bowl.” Similarly, Wasim Akram’s tips to Zaheer Khan about reverse swing added a new dimension to Zak’s repertoire. If short stints with coaches have translated into results for our fast bowlers in the past, imagine the benefit of having an Alan Donald as a constant feature in the dressing room.
Kohli must act swiftly. It has been done before. Forming a pace attack is not easy, but Clive Lloyd did it in 1975. Although the talent pool was starkly distinct the idea was there and all successes begin with a meticulous idea. Once formed, the group should be sent to England in 2017 for county cricket, and finally hiring a fast bowling coach would add icing to the cake.
Just as MS Dhoni seized the moment by promoting himself up the order in the 2011 World Cup final to win the game for India, this is Virat Kohli’s moment to create India’s greatest Test team. If he doesn’t, his side will go down as just another Indian team, lions at home, but lambs away. But he must act fast. Cape Town is 14 months away.
Nikhil is a die-hard Indian cricket fan, born and raised in Bombay, spent his high school years in New Zealand, and now lives and works in New York as an investment analyst at a hedge fund. He also runs a cricket blog called ThirdManCricket.