While the tempest rages at home and established players study their options, India’s cricketers in the West Indies will find life a little more tranquil. The waters are turquoise, the sea is calm, the pitches are slow and the opposition inexperienced. If you want to live with beauty and win matches, currently the West Indies offer the best combination.
There are, of course, two West Indies teams at the moment. One thrills the world, makes friends, fills stadiums and plays outrageous cricket. Their game is done in 120 balls. The other wears white, provokes prose filled with lament, has players who come and go before you can remember their names and don’t exactly trouble those that write headlines. The first of those dashed Indian dreams in March, the second is unlikely to be as bothersome over the next month.
The last time the West Indies played India at home was five years ago and only two players remain from that team. The last time they played in India, was two and a half years ago and only two that played that test will play the first of this series. The Indian team analyst will be as hard at work as the players in helping them prepare against a team they know so little about.
And so this series is likely to be more about India, to see whether they find the combination that will take them through an unprecedented 17 Tests in 9 months, to see whether they are able to flex their muscles and dominate teams and indeed to see if a core emerges that will serve Indian cricket over the next seven or eight years.
This series, then, is about more than just the result though, as sport constantly reminds us, belittling the opposition is fraught with danger.
All good teams are constructed around a fine opening combination and India will need to know pretty quickly if they have one. Shikhar Dhawan averages 40 as an opener and he’s played around the world. When he bats well, as he did in his four centuries, he is wonderful to watch but there are only two other scores over fifty in twenty nine other innings. India will seek a bit more consistency but his rival for the spot, Lokesh Rahul, has now played ten Test innings, produced two centuries and seven scores less than ten!
If India play with five pure batsmen, as seems likely, then the opening pair needs to do more. That little early shelter can transform life for the next three which, at this stage, should be Pujara, Kohli and Rahane. While Pujara is searching for the consistency that made his early Test matches so good to watch, the captain and vice-captain will look to enhance already formidable reputations.
The Kohli factor
Five years ago, as a young man who was already an eye-catching limited overs cricketer, Virat Kohli went to the West Indies trying to decipher Test cricket. He struggled and he learnt and now he returns as one world cricket’s most sumptuous stroke players. He averages 44 in Test cricket and most players would be quite happy with it. Kohli shouldn’t and the journey to take it to where his limited overs averages lie must begin in the Caribbean. In Australia, he was unstoppable and batted as well as any Indian has batted and now he must live with expectations of an encore.
There is steel in his deputy who has often been seen as an incarnation of the mighty Rahul Dravid. Maybe that will happen, and if it does it will provide much joy, but currently, Rahane might as well study the second half of VVS Laxman’s career where he played measured match winning innings and often had to cajole the lower order to give off its best. For while the next four can bat, and that is good news, he must live with the fact that he is the last of the pure batsmen.
The identity of the next six players will give us a window into how India will approach the next nine months. I will be very surprised if the combination of Kohli and Kumble doesn’t go in with five bowlers, especially on tracks that have in recent times had life sucked out of them. Given the vulnerability of the opposition to quality spin bowling, I am expecting all three spinners to play with Ashwin effectively the leader of the attack. (Interestingly, the first question Kumble put to Ashwin when he joined us for a post match programme late last year was: Do you see yourself as the leader of the attack?). Kohli will look to pace to fill the remaining spots and if Mohammad Shami isn’t yet ready, Umesh Yadav should join Ishant Sharma with the mandate to produce short, fiery bursts. But even here India have choices and that must be comforting to the team management.
India have never won more than one Test match in a series in the West Indies. They will be expected to win more this time for they start overwhelming favourites. But it is one thing to wear the tag and another to justify it. It is one of the many things to look forward to in this series.