Ravi Shastri is an interesting character. In the commentator’s box, his words might seem humdrum, beaten down by the excesses of constant cricket. But take that microphone away and put him in the team director’s role, and suddenly he makes for an exciting voice - someone who is forthright in his views, direct in meaning, and puts in a dramatic setting for his team.
Virat Kohli is very much in his shadow, so to speak. Listen to him talk in press conferences and he will give direct and straight responses. Like the time when he set off for the Australian tour as a stand-in captain, and said he wanted to play aggressive cricket. Like when he said he wanted to take twenty wickets desperately when he set off for Bangladesh and the need to play five bowlers.
And now, when he set off for Lanka, he was asked the same question; this time, based on what was fitting for the Lankan conditions. “Yes, playing three spinners in the same eleven is a possibility,” he had replied. It confirmed once again his ploy of going in with five bowlers. But he added one more statement: that he isn’t worried about results, and the right ‘process’ needs to be followed to achieve them.
It sounds all too familiar, even as Kohli begins an all-new era in Indian Test cricket history. It reminded one of MS Dhoni’s mantra of getting the planning right and worrying about execution only on the field of play. You can say he was a reactive captain that way, but from day one, Kohli has had the air of confidence of someone who will take action in a different manner.
Then, less than 48 hours before the first Test, Shastri came out all guns blazing. “Aggressive cricket is a form of cricket where you play to win. You don’t come to a cricket ground to draw a cricket match. So you play a brand of cricket where you look to take the game forward and you look to take twenty wickets. You have got to think how you can take 20 wickets to take the game forward and win the game,” he said.
As such, Kohli’s comment about ‘process’ was a little surprising, but at the same time, it was steeped in realism. Half the Indian team was away on holiday these past six weeks and needed to warm up nicely and get their touch back again as the new season approached them. While the five-bowler theory stayed in principle, from the summation of Shastri’s comments, it is depended on the form of Indian batsmen and the sharpness of the Indian bowlers. And it is in these two regards that the practice game in Colombo this past week holds great important.
The bowlers gave a very good account of themselves, in particular Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin. Harbhajan Singh looked sharp in the few overs he sent down, while Amit Mishra looks consigned to the bench if the Galle pitch is anything like the greenish practice match wicket. Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav looked sharp, especially the latter, who successfully mended his wayward lines in the second innings with some excellent control. Bhuvneshwar Kumar didn’t take any wickets, and he is still wearing an ankle strap. Perhaps for some time now. It is a worrying sight, for he looks to have been affected by the workload of the past year.
On any helpful track, as Dhoni used to say time and again, these bowlers will do the job and pick twenty wickets for you. They are no mugs with the red leather, after all. But the question going into the first Test is whether they will have a stack of runs behind them to force the opposition onto the back foot, even when pressure is applied on their bowling prowess. Based on the evidence of the practice match in Colombo, the answer is no.
For starters, Murali Vijay has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. It means luck has once again smiled upon Shikhar Dhawan, and he will open with KL Rahul. Rohit Sharma will slot in at number three, unless there is a nuclear attack on Galle in the next 24 hours. Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Wriddhiman Saha should complete the top-six line-up, with Cheteshwar Pujara warming the cold, wet benches in the Lankan monsoon.
There are many questions to ask here. In what universe does Pujara not fit in India’s top six batsmen at the moment? Yes, he may not have converted his starts to big scores, but surely he has enough class to be persisted with, even in half-baked form. What does Rohit provide in this circumstance, beyond the assumed theory that he will score quickly once set? How has he been able to bridge the gap from number six to number three, without much success at that spot in the recent times? Is there a change in his temperament that the team management has witnessed?
How does an attacking number three batsman fit in with an explosive opening batsman, both suspect against the moving ball? Does Kohli’s own poor run of form not create sufficient doubts? And Saha has a mountain to climb at number six, soaking in the pressure of holding the lower middle order together in a bid to fill Dhoni’s massive shoes. Add the cloudy/wet forecast for the whole week, with Rahane’s superb form the only fallback for the Indian batting, and this six-five theory seems a bad ploy at the moment.
When Dhoni first deployed five bowlers against Australia in the spring of 2013, his batsmen were enjoying a run of success at home. When he did so overseas in the summer of 2014 in England, his batsmen had gained experience of foreign conditions and were looking good. ‘Form’ is the watchword here, and until that becomes omnipresent throughout this Indian batting line-up, Kohli should opt for six proper batsmen. But will he?