Virat Kohli (centre) gestures a ‘mic drop’ after the dismissal of England’s cricket captain Joe Root during the first day of the first test cricket match between India and England at Edgbaston in Birmingham, England, on Wednesday. Photo: AP
Virat Kohli (centre) gestures a ‘mic drop’ after the dismissal of England’s cricket captain Joe Root during the first day of the first test cricket match between India and England at Edgbaston in Birmingham, England, on Wednesday. Photo: AP

Ind vs Eng perfect stage for Virat Kohli to mic-drop his way to glory

India's tour of England gives Virat Kohli the perfect opportunity to seal his place in the hall of fame. Will he seize the moment?

Bengaluru: Virat Kohli has two sides to him. He is smart, decisive and aggressive in his batting and persona. And yet, he can be defensive, reactive and tactically deficient in captaincy. We saw the best and the worst of Kohli at the very outset—in an off-balance fling at the stumps to orchestrate a match-turning run out as player, and in his questionable call on team selection as captain merely hours before that.

Left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav was a shoo-in for the playing eleven after destroying England in the first T20 game of the tour, as well as the first of the one-dayers. But India opted for the “safe" option of playing Hardik Pandya as a seventh batsman, who can also bowl some medium pace.

Normally, in a team with five specialist bowlers, one tends to be underutilized. But these were special circumstances.

England is witnessing its driest summer in half a century. This makes it a tall order for any groundsman to produce the sort of seaming wicket that has proved the undoing of visiting teams. England commentator and former spinner Graeme Swann said at the start of play that Edgbaston in Birmingham, the venue of the first Test, will be friendly to spin.

And so it proved. Kohli brought on Ravichandran Ashwin early to test the surface and he ripped a ball past former England captain Alastair Cook’s forward defence with a loopy delivery that pitched on the left-hander’s leg stump and hit the top of off-stump. How Kohli must have rued not having Kuldeep Yadav to bowl in tandem with Ashwin at that stage when the early dampness in the wicket and the bounce from a hard new ball would have made a mix of leg spin and googly such a potent brew.

A victim of over-analysis

The Indian think-tank was probably a victim of over-analysis in its selection. Head coach Ravi Shastri revealed the thinking in a chat with Michael Holding on the morning of the Test match. India wanted to bowl first if it won the toss.

The West Indian legend, who can read conditions for pace bowling better than most, cautioned Shastri not to be fooled by superficial elements. It had rained over the weekend, the skies were cloudy in the lead-up to the Test, and there was grass on the wicket. But the ground beneath was still dry from a long, hot summer and, when the sun beat down on Day One, it became apparent that expectations of swing and seam were exaggerated. Ashwin and a run-out accounting for five of the nine wickets that fell on the first day drove the point home.

India delayed the announcement of the playing eleven until the last hour before the match. That they chose to go in with three specialist pacers in Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, and Mohammed Shami was sound thinking. Leaving out Shami to include a second spinner would have taken the sting out of a pace attack in conditions that rewards a seamer who can move the ball both ways.

The choice should really have been between Pandya and Kuldeep Yadav. This is where India could have taken a risk with a longer tail to go for the jugular against an English side that has looked vulnerable to wrist spin. The likes of Jonny Bairstow have shown they don’t pick the left-arm leggie’s googlies. And although England captain Joe Root did collar Kuldeep Yadav in the final one-dayer after falling LBW to a sharp leg spin in the first one, he would have been under pressure.

Wicket-taking pressure from both ends is what the inclusion of a fill-in bowler like Pandya negates. Test series are won by bowlers who can dismiss a side twice. How much India misses the absence of Kuldeep Yadav in the England second innings will probably determine selections for the rest of the series.

Kohli might have been influenced by his South Africa experience where he fielded a spinner on rock-hard turfs designer-made for pace bowling. South Africa went for an all-pace attack, which tilted the balance in the first two well-contested Tests where India’s pacers ran out of steam after having the opposition on the mat. India then switched to a four-pronged pace attack, plus Pandya, replicating the South African attack, and this produced victory in the third and final Test at Johannesburg.

In England, however, the decision to match the opposition man-to-man, with Pandya being the counterpart for all-rounder Ben Stokes, reduces the Indian bowling threat. What a pleasant surprise it must have been for England’s batsmen when they learnt that they wouldn’t have to worry about the wiles of left-arm leg-spin.

England settled down to enjoy an afternoon of negotiating seam bowling and knocking the ball about to take control of the match. They were poised to do that at 216 for 3 when a run-out turned the game on its head. And, if the non-selection of Kuldeep Yadav made you wring your hands in anguish, here we saw the other side of Kohli that has taken Indian cricket to new heights.

It was a daft dash for a second run by Bairstow, who momentarily forgot he was playing Test cricket and not T20. Root should have rejected the call. But it required fielding brilliance to take advantage of these errors. And it was none other than Kohli who hared after the ball from mid-wicket, then made a sliding pick-up and throw to run out his counterpart Root, the mainstay of England’s batting.

There was a time when India produced only great batsmen and bowlers, and the odd world-class close-in catcher, but paid scant attention to being second-best in the field. It was a Nawabi sport, after all, although the Nawab of Pataudi himself was a superb outfielder. Kohli has brought a culture of fitness to the Indian team that has contributed to the team’s success in more ways than one.

It’s not just the turning points like the run-out of Root. It is helping to bring out a new level of performance from the likes of K.L. Rahul and Dinesh Karthik. And in his own obsession with fitness, Kohli is the Cristiano Ronaldo or Novak Djokovic of cricket.

The enduring appeal of cricket comes in combining the mental aspect with the physical. Kohli is an inspirational leader, comes across as being fair to his players, and he can go head-to-head with any opposition in body language and verbal barbs. It is on the tactical front that he faces a challenge.

The under-achievement of his star-studded Bengaluru franchise in the IPL, time and time again, has shown this up. He has fared much better with the Indian team, but mostly at home. After starting his captaincy on a losing note in Australia, he had a string of home series victories in 2016 and 2017, and successful tours to Sri Lanka and the West Indies.

2018 is, therefore, the moment of truth for Kohli. It began with a tour to South Africa where India managed to pull one Test back after going 2-0 down, and then dominated the one-dayers and T20s. No team has thrashed South Africa like that in its own backyard, and it signalled a potential to reach new heights for the Indian cricket team.

Thanks to the IPL, India is spoilt for riches in all departments of the game. It is now a matter of bringing the best out in alien conditions. Let’s face it: At home, it’s almost too easy now for India to win.

Crossing that barrier

Outside the subcontinent, India has only tasted series victory in the West Indies and New Zealand this millennium. There have been stirring Test victories at Leeds, Adelaide, and Johannesburg, but it’s time to go beyond that. The tour of England, followed by the one in Australia, provide the opportunity to do that and cement Kohli’s place in the hall of fame.

The question is: Will he be bold enough to grasp greatness or let fear of failure allow the moment to slip away?

The omission of Kuldeep Yadav shows the difficulty of crossing that barrier. Decision-making is no longer as straightforward as at home, where playing two or three spinners is a no-brainer. Reading the conditions is a challenge, evident from India’s reaction to the rain preceding the first Test. The batsmen face the challenge of adapting to seam and swing movement. However dry the English summer, the red ball will swing. And unlike the hard, bouncy wickets of Australia and South Africa, the spongy surface and grass will make the ball deviate off the seam.

Indian batsmen brought up on a diet of playing through the line of the ball have to curb their natural instincts and allow the ball to come and hit a defensive blade. Here, Kohli faces a personal challenge, apart from leading the team by example. His bread-and-butter shot is a glide down to third man. Can he stop himself from poking at deliveries seaming away outside off-stump and stick to playing close to the body? His last tour of England was abysmal, which his nemesis, James Anderson, takes every opportunity to point out.

Strangely enough, it’s the Indian batsmen who are also tasked with dealing with leg spin. Adil Rashid proved a handful in the third one-dayer where he clean bowled Kohli. Kohli and company will have to attack the leggie to hit him out of his length, and that will be one of the subplots of the series as it unfolds.

What’s heartening is the way India came back on day one after being gifted the wicket of Joe Root. They must have realized early on, after seeing the spin Ashwin got, that the decision to leave out Kuldeep Yadav sucked. But they were patient and remained in good spirits, especially Kohli, who has matured in this aspect of his cricket. He’s still as passionate as ever. But he has learnt to curb his aggression and stay on top of the game. Most of all, he is letting other players in the team express themselves, especially the bowlers.

Now is the time to pull out the stops. Kohli has the personnel to beat all comers in all conditions. He should remember what it was like to wait in the wings well after he was ready for Test cricket as the old stalwarts—Tendulkar, Dravid, and Laxman—plugged away. He could reap great dividends by letting loose young guns like Kuldeep Yadav and Ishan Kishan on the English and the Aussies. To do that, he will have to overcome the fear of losing. As Virgil said, fortune favours the bold.

Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru