Virat Kohli needs to keep his emotions under check, feels Michael Jeh
If Virat Kohli doesn't learn anything from his spoilt brat antics in South Africa, he will put his less skilled teammates under immense pressure because they will have to deal with the furnace that he stokes
Virat Kohli reacts after taking a catch to dismiss SA's Quinton de Kock for a duck on the first day of the second Test at Centurion. Pic: AP/PTI
Trailing two-nil in South Africa is not the disaster it needs to be. With long-term vision, the series can still be a glass half-full for India if they can learn and execute the lessons when they tour Australia at the end of the year. Whilst the Proteas play cricket in a more dignified manner, the pitches and style of cricket have remarkable similarities to what India will face Down Under later this year. A tour of Australia is not a place to learn on the fly. India need to hit the ground running because to concede momentum in Australia is to virtually surrender the Border Gavaskar Trophy at the outset.
It is a two-pronged lesson that Team India need to absorb. Clearly, the South African experience will give them some clues as to the make-up of their best squad and will also give those players the opportunity to hone the skills required to succeed on fast pitches. But it would be wise not to ignore the Ashes series because England have given India the complete opposite of a blueprint in how not to win in Australia. From the moment their squad was selected, long before Ben Stokes' pugilistic skills were on show in Bristol that fateful night, England were doomed. And these are the lessons that India need to learn before the first shot is fired.
Let's look at the pitches first. With the drop-in pitches in Melbourne and Adelaide, India have nothing to fear except fear itself. In Adelaide especially, if it is a day-night Test, it could come down to who wins the toss and who bowls best at night. Or who bats least worst! It might be horses for courses. Someone like Bhuvneshwar Kumar could be a match-winner in Adelaide and maybe in Perth where someone needs to bowl into the wind (Fremantle Doctor). At other venues, India need to bowl fast. Simple as that. England were never going to win the Ashes with an ageing attack of medium pacers. And so it came to pass.
Brisbane and Perth are no longer the fast, bouncy pitches of old. They will certainly test the Indian batsmen but nothing they haven't seen in South Africa already. If India had played with a bit more nous in Brisbane last time, they might even have stolen that game. Murali Vijay had the game at his mercy but when he tired in the heat, threw his wicket away for 144, a wild slog late in the afternoon. If he was that tired, perhaps he should have retired hurt or gone into his shell. And the Indian quicks showed that they could mix it with the locals boys, reducing Australia to six down in a small chase of 130. Little moments might have changed that Test. India need to be more street smart next time around.
In South Africa, India have proved that their fast bowlers can go toe-to-toe with the home team, even on quick pitches. They need to adopt a similarly aggressive approach in Australia. Unless it is swinging at night in Adelaide, they need to pack their team full of genuine quicks and fight fire with fire. Toiling away with medium pacers who bowl line and length won't work on these pitches. England were utterly naive to think otherwise. There has rarely been a visiting off-spinner who has won a series in Australia. Take careful note India. If Muttiah Muralitharan and Saqlain Mushtaq couldn't do it in their pomp, what hope Moeen Ali? India's spinner needs to be LA orthodox or a quality leggie. If India rely on Ravichandran Ashwin as their main spinner, they will fly in the face of history. On these pitches, balls that turn into the right-hander are bread and butter for Australians. Do not confuse Ashwin's success on Indian pitches with his likely effectiveness here.
Speaking of Ashwin, if he plays, he cannot bat as high as six. Brave and versatile he may be but that would be two places too high on these pitches. It is one of the most important and difficult positions to bat in Australia because you're often facing the second new ball, resurrecting a collapse, accelerating after a good start or coaxing runs out of the tail. It has to be a specialist batsman who can score big hundreds. The Ashes series proved that. England paid the price for a lower order that kept getting blown away when it really mattered.
There's another lesson for India's coaches. For goodness sake, teach the lower order to bat properly. Not just swinging from the rafters, get-them-before-they-get-you sort of philosophy. If the tail can show some courage and learn to play the short ball, that will allow someone like Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane or Hardik Pandya to bat sensibly and convert a decent score into one of those 'daddy' hundreds that Steve Smith specialises in, aided almost always by reliable and calm support from the likes of Pat Cummins who actually treats his batting as a genuine skill-set. England showed that just once, in Melbourne; when the tail hung around, it allowed Alistair Cook to churn out a big double hundred.
On that topic, one can only hope that India approaches this series with a definite plan for how to combat short-pitched bowling. It is incomprehensible that England presumably spent four years planning for a bumper barrage and then executed their plans so abysmally. They either hooked with desperation or fended throat balls away with looks of utter surprise. Fancy that? Short-pitched bowling in Australia? Who would have expected that? Duh! Let's see what Kohli does for the rest of this series in South Africa in terms of his body language, demeanour and leadership. His batting is not in doubt - his class is there for all to see and he has conquered Australia in Australia twice before.
As a leader, he can be talismanic and inspirational, flashing eyes and flashing blade carrying his team along with him on a sea of passion, fuelled by manic Indian crowd support, almost neutralising Australia's home advantage. But King Kohli is both a strength and a weakness. The Aussies, media included, will bait him mercilessly, knowing that he refuses to back down, trying to get him to lose his cool. They will have a plan to get him so emotional that he plays the man and not the ball. They will try to push him to the brink where his combative nature will result in a suspension or emasculation. The fanatic Indian supporters will do him no favours because they will not understand the mind games being played; they will instead exhort their hero to become so passionate that he loses sight of the big prize.
Some will point to Kohli's fantastic record in Australia and argue that he thrives when the heat gets turned up. And it may well work for Kohli himself but what ends up happening is that the rest of his team get dragged into the verbals and they may not be equipped to fight fire with fire in the same way. The Aussies are experts at it. They use the incessant sledging to take their game to the next level without losing their heads. It's bred into them from junior cricket. And for some reason, they are protected by officialdom because umpires and match referees invariably allow them more latitude than some other teams. So if Kohli doesn't learn anything from his spoilt brat antics in South Africa, which frankly, should not be tolerated from an international captain, he will put his less skilled team-mates under immense pressure because they will have to deal with the furnace that he stokes. South Africa with gentlemen like Hashim Amla and AB De Villiers are a far cry from David Warner, Mitchell Starc and an increasingly abrasive Smith. Dare I say it? If Kohli cannot control his emotions, will India be brave enough to change captains and just allow him to bat and bat and bat? It might be the last thing Australia expects!
The Indians need to spend a few days in Kruger National Park, recharging their batteries. Be the lion, taking prey head on, being prepared to lose a few battles to win the big prize. Learn not from the hyena, trotting along patiently, waiting for a weakness and then exhausting their prey. On these pitches, games can be won and lost in a single session. Be brave. Be bold. Be the lion. But only roar after the kill has been made!
Michael Jeh is a Brisbane-based former first-class player
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