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Friday, April 03, 2020

India’s four shaky pillars ⁠— Kohli, Pujara, Bumrah, Shami ⁠— bring down the house

As much as India prides itself as a team that relies overtly on individuals—and the belief is often justified—when the pillars begin to creak, the sky-riser begins to shake and crumble. The team is built around them, and when the nucleus is dismembered, half the battle is over.

Written by Sandip G | Wellington | Updated: February 25, 2020 8:41:25 am
Virat Kohli after the first Test against New Zealand with teammates. (REUTERS) 

As soon as New Zealand completed a thunderous win, someone turned on the volume of a classic 70s rock riff, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. An irritated Virat Kohli, his fingers stuck into the ears, requested a guards prowling to turn down the volume. Soon the music stopped and as stifling silence spread across the ground.

The uneasy calm surrounded the Indian camp as the players stared at each other meaninglessly. Some of the support staff leaned against the rails of the dressing room balcony, peering into the verdant peaks over the harbour. Kohli plunged statue-like onto a chair in the dugout, waiting for the presentation ceremony and waiting to pack his bags and leave the ground.

It has been a season of discontent for the Indian skipper. After four years of staggering batsmanship, the invariable reversal of fortunes and form seems to have caught up with him. In the Test he made 2 and 19; in the ODIs and T20Is, his scores read 9, 15, 51, 11, 38, 11, 45. It’s been three months since he has scored a hundred. In fact, his last three-figure across formats came in November against Bangladesh. A three-month drought is normal for most batsmen, but Kohli has made a monster of his own batsmanship that even a three-month drought seems like a long period.

Coincidentally—and coincidence has a wicked knack of timing—his own poor form has coincided with that of the three other pillars of India’s Test team—Cheteshwar Pujara (11 & 11), Jasprit Bumrah (one wicket in the last five games) and Mohammed Shami (1/91 in Wellington). As much as India prides itself as a team that relies overtly on individuals—and the belief is often justified—when the pillars begin to creak, the sky-riser begins to shake and crumble. The team is built around them, and when the nucleus is dismembered, half the battle is over.

Kohli, the defiant one

Virat Kohli bats during the first Test between India and New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington. (AP Photo)

There are few apter words to describe him. There’s defiance in every stride or gesture. There’s defiance in every word he utters. So when asked about his middling string of scores, he retorted: “I’m absolutely fine. I am batting really well. I feel that sometimes scores don’t reflect the way you are batting and that’s what can happen when you don’t execute what you want to well.” If he was agitated by the question, he did well to masquerade it, the captain-statesman taking over from master batsman. Forget the numbers—it happens to any batsman—but there’s something unusually tetchy about his batting. He stills looks fluent and compact for most of the time, but then breaks into a petulance, when he inadvertently turns scratchy and disoriented.

The knock in Mount Maunganui symbolised his torment, when he uncharacteristically began to step down the track to the seamers after getting beaten a few times. In the nets, he would try atypical Kohli shots like the paddle-sweeps and the reverse sweeps. The lack of runs seems grating under the skin of defiance. In both innings in Wellington, he looked nonplussed until the moment he got out.

In the first innings, he stabbed at a Kylie Jamieson full-ball that he could have left, or played in a better manner. It was a classic Kohli dismissal, but he had with sheer practice and single-mindedness weeded out that glitch, a reason he thrived in England the year before. It was a lapse in concentration, more than a technical glitch. But Kohli had blunted indiscretion with single-mindedness. Or defiance.

In the second innings, he perished trying to land a counter-punch on Trent Boult. It was a shot of man losing his defiance, sans belief or conviction. Usually a master in these situations, sensing the precise moment to deliver those punches, he faltered here, choosing the wrong ball and the bowler. India were in such a situation that they needed the stability than the flash of the skipper. He defended: “I think that’s a very thin line and a very delicate balance of when to attack and when to put bowlers under pressure which we failed to do in this match and there is no harm in accepting that. You have to take chances. Sometimes, they don’t come off but if you try and do that for longer periods they do tend to come off and situation changes.” It was the tired voice of a defiant man.

Pujara, the trying one

Cheteshwar Pujara tries to defend Kyle Jamieson’s delivery during the first Test between India and New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington. (AP Photo) 

No one could blame Pujara for not trying. His whole career was built on his ability to keep trying, keep pushing himself and keep elevating his game. A man of sheer sweat and hard work. But since the prolific tour of Australia, he has gone without a hundred for 12 innings, and between the two tours to the Trans-Tasman rivals, he had scored just a lone first-class hundred—the double hundred against Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy. But somehow, his outside the off-stump judgement, which has blazed brightly in Australia, went gone off-kilter.

Close to half of his dismissals since has accrued from his indiscretion outside the off-stump. Kemar Roach and Jason Holder in West Indies, Vernon Philander in South Africa home Tests and Trent Boult and Tim Southee here.

None of them have supersonic pace, but the corridor-discipline and subtle away-movement has troubled. In trying to address the weakness—exaggerated by the lack of a strident forward press—by looking to play as late as possible, he has unearthed a new problem, the short ball.

Too conscious to play the full, seaming on the front-foot, he became susceptible to the short-ball on his body. A couple of times in the second innings, he read the length too late that it struck him on the glove and the arm-guard.

When an anchorman is not trusting his defence, it is a sinister sign. But without his stability, India unravelled. He was the safety valve, around whom the stroke-makers flourished. But when the safety valve burst, the pent-up pressure blew up. But he couldn’t be blamed for not trying.

Agonising as his 81-ball 11 was—which ended in the most incredulous fashion possible—there was no dearth of grit and sweat. If Kohli’s avenue of getting out of a slump is by hitting his shots, Pujara is to stonewall his way out of trouble. It failed gloriously, but he can’t be blamed for not trying.

Bumrah, the restless one

Jasprit Bumrah turns to bowl during the first Test between India and New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington. (AP Photo) 

It betrays in every move he makes on the field. When fielding, he’s jumpy, thoughts wandering, always shadow bowling, immune to what’s happening in the middle. He tries to force a smile, but he fails. When bowling, he tries to rush through his over, like Ravindra Jadeja, almost sprinting back to the top of the run-up. And the restlessness permeates into his bowling. Like an out of form batsman wondering where his next run would come, he seems to be wondering where his next wicket would arrive. So he starts trying over hard, pressing himself too much, so much so that he is not even starting his run up from area he had demarcated with the chalk.

He fluffs the line, he messes the length, the accuracy and precision go haywire. Between deliveries, either Ishant or Shami takes him for a talk. Bumrah nods his head, but does still the same. Perhaps, of all the struggles of India’s main men, his is the most poignant. For, he is coming into grips with the first setback of his career.

Let’s look at this in another way. Bumrah had hardly put a wrong foot in his international career, he never had to wait for wickets, reputation or recognition. Wickets in South Africa, England, Australia and West Indies, his career had gotten off a magical start. Seldom has a bowler looked so complete a package. Pace, bounce, swing, seam, variations, composure, maturity, he ticked all the boxes. None of these manifested at the Basin Park. Like a magicial unable to pull off his tricks, he froze on the stage.

How he bounces back from the setback will be a fascinating narrative. But being the restlessness one is not the answer.

Mohammed Shami, the grumpy one

Mohammed Shami bowls during the first Test between India and New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington. (AP Photo) 

He is usually sanguine, hiding his anger and agony beneath his cheeky smile. But here he was moody, barely smiling, frequently shrugging his head, kicking the turf and self admonishing. A telltale sign that he was knackered.

As uncharacteristic was his bowling. There was neither direction nor sharpness, hardly got the kink off the surface, barely beat the bat, and even scarcely looked to pick a wicket.

The bolt-upright seam position during the release was intact, but the seam wobbled in the flight and met the batsman, which’s unlike of Shami. And when his bowling is not in sync, he gets scattergun.

Consequently, he leaked more runs than any other Indian bowler, conceding more runs (run-rate of nearly four) than any of the four frontline bowlers.

These are usually the situation that he relishes, the team backs to the wall, the strip unresponsive, his colleagues tiring. These are situations that Shami harnesses his “junoon” and lifts the morale of the team.

But Shami was bereft of energy and junoon, and the more he tried to self-correct, the more mistakes he began to make.

He was far from the ungrumpy, ever-smiling bowler of all conditions and situations, not the stock-strike bowler exemplar. And he could not stop grumping.

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