India vs England: Virat Kohli’s side on a burning bridge

Opener KL Rahul, who was touted to thrive in English conditions, has managed only 35 runs in four innings so far. (Source: Reuters)

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One wrong turn at Nottingham, and the Indian cricket team could bump into panic. Not administered by them, but it might be taken out of their hands by the selectors who could press for young stars from the India A squad. The Test series is at one such vital tipping point: this team has been selected for the first three Tests and if you go down 0-3 in a five-match series, suddenly it might seem the world is against you. Cul-de-sacs and shadows crawling everywhere. The cynical slogan of leavers during the Brexit debate can be a good rallying cry for this Indian team:

Take back control.

Perhaps, allrounder R Ashwin need to do a bit more. (Source: Reuters)

It’s clear what the team needs: A solid opening partnership, a good middle- order batsman to stand with Virat Kohli. And they need to make better use of the best all-rounder in the team, R Ashwin. It will come to whether the batsmen can put up something around 275 to 300 to give their bowlers a fighting chance. The situation India find themselves demands a display of character, that accomplished athletes often talk about. Ravi Shastri is a passionate proponent of it but how will this Indian team look at it? The think tank is confident that a good result can stir a revival and that the rest of the team is on the same page as them – the reality of their assessment of other players will decide the course of things.

Have they been able to derive confidence from the close-run affair at Edgbaston, shrug away the debacle at Lord’s and re-focus all over again? Sometimes, it’s not blustery confidence but an ability to forget that does the trick. It’s not as if the England batting, especially their top order, has been any good. Even at Lord’s, on a rare sunny day, they had lost the first four for not much. The lower order has been pretty good but without runs on the board, the Indian bowlers too have ended up losing some sting as the innings dragged on. It’s difficult when that the lead is already 150 to retain the ruthlessness and discipline to finish things off. The onus is on the batsmen to rally around their bowlers.

Nottingham is a perfect city for self-reflection. A gorgeous river runs through the city dotted with bridges and castles. Modern trams swagger through the city centre, ancient pubs, tavern caves of ancient castles basically, have been inebriating people for 1,000 years here, and the evening sky casts a glow to footballing great Brian Clough’s statue in the heart of the city. More than most, young sportsmen are almost forced to introspect as they are faced with the prospect of losing their jobs after five bad days at work. It’s the beauty of the hard graft that a five-Test series demands of a team. The pulls and thrusts of a long tour on a band of players can be fascinating to watch. Sometimes, as we saw on the 2011-12 tour of Australia, cracks can appear. When one looks back at that tour now, it’s insane how the memories it throws up are fractious press conferences with MS Dhoni and Virender Sehwag. The pressure cooks ever so slowly and by the end of the second or third Test, it boils over rapidly.

Most Indians have the habit of letting the milk boil all the way to the brim before they turn off the heat— in some ways that’s how Indian cricket teams also tend to operate on long tours. It’s just not what happens in a game but the slow boil continues on non-game days, and everything simmers on towards some sort of cathartic release. Like it has now on this tour. It’s only human if the players start thinking about dire what-if scenarios, but it’s imperative for success that the team management finds a way to stop those negative urges.

Onus on batsmen

Virat Kohli and Co. need to perform better with the bat. (Source: Reuters)

Kohli talked about it on Friday when he dwelt on what his batsmen need to do. How they need to move on when good balls get them but how that doesn’t mean they go in with a negative mindset about that delivery that would eventually get them. “It doesn’t mean that you surrender beforehand because a good ball is going to come. You should have confidence that before that good ball comes, how many runs can I score? … I am not saying it should be 100 or 125, but if you can score 40-45 crucial runs, then you should take pride in that as well that I have contributed to the team. We are trying to go with that mindset in this match.”

It all sounds simple when he puts it down like that and of course, it does make a lot of sense. In particular, it’s a method that can take out the worry of losing your job. When a batsman is not thinking about needing one big score to cement his place – of course, he will but if the management stresses repeatedly in public and private that if they can collectively share the run load, some of the stress can fade. At least that’s how Kohli is viewing this. “By doing this, you can relieve the pressure of personal performance and you are able to respect conditions as well. You don’t exceed limitations of your ability and stay in the present. We have spoken about a lot of these things and it matters how we show it on the field.”

READ | No room for thinking about anything but a win, says Virat Kohli

Near the end of the press conference, a question popped out whether careers are on the line. Harsh maybe and unintended in its severity as the questioner suggested immediately, but it was out there floating in the air. Kohli said he thought it was quite a “bizarre thought”. “I don’t think anyone is thinking like that. These are just things that are created on the outside and people like to make a lot of nothing, basically. For us, the priority is to win games of cricket. We are not thinking whether someone’s career is on the line or what’s going to happen to their future. When it’s your time, it’s your time. Everyone had had their time in the past. No one can play forever, but that day is not today. We need to focus on this Test match and not think about whether someone’s career is on the line. It’s quite a bizarre thought to have.”

On the second attempt, the question was re-phrased to how he provides security to his players, and Kohli again sought to dismiss the very notion that there is insecurity floating around. “That’s basically your thinking. I’m definitely not thinking like that so I won’t speak to the guys assuring their careers are not on the line. Like I said, that’s quite a bizarre thought to have.”

That’s what happens in a five-match series, especially when you lose two Tests in just over five days of action. Bizarre thoughts and sometimes over-the-top reactions from the likes of the selectors can kick in. The players need to wrest control in the middle to prevent thing spiraling out of control. The good thing is that this team still has it in them to do it. It hasn’t reached the horror levels of certain overseas tours of the past. Cricket is still at the forefront, which can never be a bad thing.

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