On Friday, a day before the second Test commences in Bengaluru, the Indian team arrived for a morning practice session at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium. Beyond the usual nets, fielding drills and some football, there was a peculiar sight.
Before the team got down to business, they huddled up and sat on the lush green outfield. Coach Anil Kumble talked a bit. Then, skipper Virat Kohli spoke too.
Thereafter, there was a group discussion with active participation from various members. Obviously, they were talking about how to approach this upcoming match and respond to Australia’s stunning 333-run victory in Pune.
“A loss like that is an opportunity to understand what things we still need to work on. We are all professional cricketers, but sometimes when you are winning a lot of games, you don’t tend to focus on points that need improving because someone or the other is stepping up,” said the Indian captain in the pre-match press conference.
“When the whole team doesn’t execute those plans, you understand the things you need to work on as a team.”
There are two keen pointers in his words.
One, there can be no denying that India failed as a collective unit in Pune. The batting was shoddy, the execution in bowling was awry, and the fielding – when put under pressure by a 155-run lead in the second innings – was abysmal. That Kohli thought Umesh Yadav was the one positive in that entire Test was a wonder, in that they could salvage something.
Two, when Kohli says ‘someone or the other is stepping up’, he could have been talking about himself. If we look back at this home season gone by, excluding the Pune Test, Kohli has scored 1206 runs in nine matches at an average of 86.14. From Indore against New Zealand, to Visakhapatnam and Mumbai versus England, and in Hyderabad against Bangladesh, you can count at least four Tests where his wide blade left an indelible mark.
It is not to say others haven’t scored runs. Cheteshwar Pujara has been ever-present, with 911 runs in nine Tests (avg. 65.07) excluding Pune of course.
In the same interim, Murali Vijay has scored 658 runs. Ajinkya Rahane started off well against New Zealand (347 runs in three Tests), but then his form tapered off against England (63 runs in three Tests). He did make a decent return against Bangladesh (82 and 28 in the one-off Test), but it resulted in nought at Pune.
The underlying point herein is simple. KL Rahul has been an irregular presence in the playing eleven, and Vijay has had to partner up with Shikhar Dhawan, Gautam Gambhir and Parthiv Patel in his absence.
It has led to a flux at the top of the order, seen from the manner in which Rahul-Vijay do not exude confidence of a settled pair. Their average of 22.70 only reflects it further.
Thereafter you have Rahane in the middle order – a batsman who has scored in different conditions across the world, yet is currently struggling for confidence. Sandwiched in between the two, Kohli and Pujara have had to do a lion’s share of the work.
For all his heavy scoring against the spinners, Pujara though is an accumulator. He isn’t someone who can overpower the opposition, and you need an enforcer for that.
Someone whose very presence at the crease commands respect, forcing the bowlers and fielders on their toes alike, so much so taking away attention from a set batsman at the other end. Kohli fits in that definition very well – ask England, who just couldn’t see the back of him in their five-Test series here.
It is in this enforcer role that Kohli has quickly climbed the charts in this home season, and in summation with his spirited captaincy, the Indian Test team has come to revolve around him. It is akin to how the ODI and T20I teams revolve around him too, almost mirroring a dependency that isn’t healthy.
Yes, it was Rahul’s careless aerial stroke that triggered the Indian collapse in the first innings, and eventually their defeat. Make no mistake though, the sting went away when Kohli was dismissed for a duck in the first innings, and victory for Australia was just a formality when he was bowled, shouldering arms, for 13 in the second.
In that light, Kohli has met his match in Steve Smith this series, both as an opposing captain and a competing batsman. Kane Williamson felt overburdened by this dual role, and Alastair Cook was on the last legs of his long reign.
Later, Mushfiqur Rahim – despite notching up a ton – was not even on the same park as Kohli. Smith’s hundred in the second innings at Pune was a reminder of what an ‘enforcer batsman’, doubling up as captain, can do.
To say then, India need a response in Bengaluru would be stating the obvious. The team, beckoned by its captain and coach, has tried its very best to put the Pune disaster behind them. They even went hiking on the two free days they got after the first Test, even as Australia spent time in the nets.
Maybe it was their way of releasing some pent-up steam. Even so, to turn around their fortunes on the field of play, Kohli once again has to take up the focal role in Bengaluru. His twin failures in Pune were as much a rarity as this defeat for the Indian team, and this unit’s rejuvenation is dependent on his impending knock(s) in the second Test.
Kohli’s importance is underlined by the simple fact that, against an opposition like Australia, there is arguably only one batsman in world cricket at present who can impress in this manner. Smith knows it only too well as he engaged in some banter speaking to the media, claiming the Indian skipper will be under pressure.
“Me? Does it look like [I am under pressure]? I’m pretty relaxed, I’m happy, I’m smiling. It’s fine. It’s his view, whatever he wants to say,” Kohli replied, setting the stage for round two in this epic clash.