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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

There’s will, there will be a way away

India are perhaps the toughest team to beat at home at the moment; under Virat Kohli, however, they look ready to shed the tag of poor travellers as well.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Chennai | Updated: December 22, 2016 10:10:25 am
Virat Kohli, Kohli, India vs England, Team India, India Test rankings, ind vs eng, jadeja, ashwin, cricket news, cricket score, cricket Virat Kohli’s not only keen to conquer his demons in England; he already has a roadmap in place.

James Anderson says Virat Kohli’s technical deficiencies aren’t brought into play in Indian conditions. Certain sections of the media blow up his remarks claiming that the England fast bowler had insinuated the Indian captain for being a ‘flat-track bully’. A day later, Anderson is accosted to the batting crease by R Ashwin, who gives him a piece of his mind. Kohli defends his off-spinner saying he was simply disappointed by Anderson’s comments.

If anything, what Anderson told the media and what Ashwin told Anderson is equally rhetorical. The fact remains that Kohli had a disastrous tour with the bat in 2014. He averaged 13.4 in 10 innings. He’s scored runs all around the world otherwise. But England remains his final frontier, his El Dorado. And till the time he goes there in 2018 and sets the record straight, Anderson’s views about having “nicked him out” on wickets with more pace and movement in English conditions remain unchallenged.

But why he’s slightly off the mark is that this is not the Kohli of 2014. This is the Kohli of 2016. It’s been a year where he’s ended up with 2,595 runs across all formats at an average of 86.50. No batsman in history has finished with a higher average in a calendar year, all formats put together. Only seven others have scored more. And most importantly, he’s already looking ahead to fix that one glaring misnomer on his Test resume. For now, he looks prepared anyway.

India are on fire. They’ve won every Test series they’ve played in — five including Sri Lanka and West Indies — since the 2-0 loss in Australia early last year. There are still five Tests to go before this unprecedentedly lengthy home season comes to a close. Bangladesh’s first-ever Test on Indian soil followed by four against Australia still await. Only then do Kohli & Co start venturing away from home comforts and ‘home advantage’.

Kohli amends

It might be premature to make any predictions yet. But you just get a feeling with this team. It just seems like a calculated punt to make. Both on captain Kohli and his team. That they seem to have what it takes to, once and for all, put to rest that ‘bullies at home and banged up abroad’ tag — or use the lion and lamb metaphor at your discretion —which has plagued Indian cricket for decades.

Kohli’s not only keen to conquer his demons in England; he already has a roadmap in place. He’s spoken about his desire to play a few weeks of county cricket prior to India’s tour to England in 2018. Also, there’s already been a visible change in his technique already. A few days before Anderson, perhaps inadvertently, set off the war of words; former England batsmen-turned-cricket pundits Nick Knight and Rob Key had analysed the change in Kohli’s technique and found why he’s a lot more solid, even nick-free, now. A split-screen freeze frame comparison of his stance from 2014 to now is a revelation.

In visuals from two years ago, he’s seen taking a leg-stump guard and is therefore rarely in a good position to cover the fourth and fifth stump line, which is where the English seamers kept targeting him. His front foot, as a result, points towards the bowler whenever he pushes his bat out and therefore exposes the outside edge.

Turn the clock two years forward. His feet now cover middle stump in his stance. He no longer looks tentative with his footwork, regardless of how wide of off-stump the likes of Anderson and Stuart Broad drag him. And his front foot is always pointing in the direction in which he wants to play the ball.

The only time the outside edge is on offer is when he goes chasing after a wide delivery. He’s not given them those opportunities too often this series as the 655 runs will testify.

He’s got his feet in place in more ways than one. Kohli looks ready to answer Anderson’s challenge. Already. And not in the form of words anymore.

The spin twins

“If Ashwin doesn’t get you, then Jadeja must”. It’s been the unofficial statutory warning for all visiting teams over the last couple of years in India. Indian teams have been indomitable before at home. For a better part of their cricket history. Kohli isn’t the first Indian captain to ‘avenge’ an overseas loss either. MS Dhoni humiliated the Aussies by whitewashing them 4-0 in 2013. This is not to take anything away from that feat or, for that matter, from the routs that Mohammad Azharuddin commandeered during the 90s.

But you just need to look at those pitches objectively to know that there was more in them for Ashwin and Jadeja than any of the five England have played on over the last couple of months. Or for that matter, even the three put forth for the Kiwis before that. And let’s not even get started about the snake-pit safari that South Africa had to contend with last year.

Against the Proteas, Ashwin and Jadeja shared 54 wickets while averaging 10.82 and 11.12 respectively, numbers that have rarely been recorded since the end of 19th century when spinners were still a mystery and Sherlock Holmes had one too many cases already up his sleeve.

Their bowling averages are a lot more sterile in comparison — 30.25 for the off-spinner and 25.84 for Jadeja — against the English. It’s a sign of how true the pitches have been this time around. India have still won 4-0. Ashwin and Jadeja have again shared 54 wickets between them. They’ve shown that they can not only adjust, but dictate terms on pitches that always don’t serve wicked turn and vicious bounce on a platter. That they’re prepared to fight the good fight. That they’re prepared to hang in there and work the batsmen out on their own. To the extent that Alastair Cook ended the series wishing that he had the option to captain Ashwin and Jadeja instead of his own spinners on the docile pitches that were on offer here.

Not for nothing do they presently hold the top two positions in the Test rankings for bowlers. Kohli has already spoken of Jadeja’s consistency and accuracy as being an asset on any pitch in the world and lauded the balance that the all-rounder brings to his side. Ashwin has his own demons to slay away from home and correct an awful overseas record. It’s a rider that gets attached to his otherwise awe-inspiring Test record and continues to cloud judgements over his overall calibre.

Historically, Indian spinners have been the support cast for the fast bowlers whenever India tours abroad. Their roles generally based more on providing control from their end and be enablers for their colleagues’ success. Last time around in South Africa, Ashwin and Jadeja played one Test each. With both having taken their batting to all-rounder status, it’s likely they will finally get a chance to pair up and be a tag-team even on foreign soil.

Finding new ways to win

Kohli won three out of four tosses against AB de Villiers last year. He won all three against Kane Williamson earlier this year. The gameplan was to bat first and bat big, allowing his spinners ample opportunities to crowd the opposition batsmen with runs on the board.

Kohli lost four out of five tosses to Cook, which meant England batted first on four occasions. India responded by scoring over 400 runs every time they batted second. In Mumbai, England made 400. India replied with 641. In Chennai, England did better with 477. It only made matters worse for the visitors as they were made to field for two days and a little more as India piled on their highest ever Test total. That’s where the optimism comes from though.

Under Kohli, India are finding new ways to win. They are actually turning obstacles into opportunities. It’s not just a cliché for them. How often have we already seen a player step in as a replacement following an injury and not just make the most of it, but actually play a starring role.

Their lower order is now among the most dependable going around. Numbers show them to be the best presently. They’re not just bailing the team out of trouble but, like we saw in St Lucia and more recently in Mohali, the likes of Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha, Jadeja and Jayant Yadav are turning matches on their head with bat in hand. If the batsmen are failing to give them the runs they need on the board when it’s their turn to bowl; they’re scoring them on their own.

The fast bowlers aren’t just content with cameo roles either at home. Umesh Yadav played all five Tests against England. He and Mohammed Shami have run in hard and fast even on dead tracks where a captain must feel like a ruthless bully whenever he has to throw the ball to them.

Shami has provided India the impetus as often as Ashwin and Jadeja. Even though it was Jadeja who hogged the limelight on the final day in Chennai, Yadav was equally incisive with a fiery spell that kept England on the edge and even earned him plaudits from the best in the business. “Umesh is bowling heat on a flatty,” tweeted Dale Steyn with an emoticon depicting ‘fire’ to boot.

Coaches are the engine

India are also benefiting largely, of course, from the men manning their engine room. You can’t ask for two better characters than Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid when it comes to shepherding and preparing a bunch of young men for battle. Never before have the breeding ground and dressing room been more in cohesion and the path between the two as transparent as it is now.

The past is a foreign country, the saying goes. For Kumble and Dravid, it sounds all too literal. Their past, cricket-wise anyway, is after all littered with scars of disastrous campaigns to foreign lands. They know what it feels like, better than most, to feel completely overwhelmed away from home. But they also know what it feels like to then overcome the humiliation, go back and overwhelm their conquerors in their backyard. There was hardly an overseas win for India in the first decade of the 21st century that didn’t have Messrs Kumble and Dravid playing a lead role. Headlingley 2002. Adelaide 2003. Series wins in England and West Indies. You name it. Even in the last vestiges of his career, Dravid was making centuries and keeping the Indian ship from sinking completely — or delaying it anyway — on green tracks with the English on the charge.

Between them, Kumble and Dravid have all bases covered in turning India into an equally dominant team once they begin their conquests of faraway lands. We’ve already seen the Dravid stamp on most of the guys who’ve come through the ranks, especially in the way they take to international cricket so organically. Jayant Yadav and Karun Nair are prime examples. You always have Kumble to add the finishing touches.

Kohli’s already drawn the line in the sand insisting that winning every series they’ve played in over the last year-and-a-half is not even a tiny bit of where he aims to reach. Only time will tell if Kohli and his team live up to that promise. But there’s hardly been a better time than now to stick your neck out and actually buy into that confidence. To say that in the Kohli era, the Indian team might finally break that ‘overseas’ voodoo once and for all.

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