Virat Kohli will have to keep his focus alive

The tour of England comes mid-year and then a trip Down Under before 2018 winds down.
Speculation about Virat Kohli getting married, this week or the next, has had newsrooms across the country in a tizzy. That the Indian captain decided to skip the limited overs series’s against Sri Lanka only fanned the curiosity further.

But even as he takes time out — whether to get married or relax after a hectic playing schedule — Kohli will have to keep his focus alive to the onerous task that awaits him in South Africa, the first of three major teams India face in 2018.

The tour of England comes mid-year and then a trip Down Under before 2018 winds down. India’s record away from the sub-continent remains rather dismal.

This puts India —currently undefeated in nine consecutive series —under great scrutiny.

On the personal front, Kohli is currently the only batsman in the world to average 50+ in ODIs, T20s and Tests. He is also top-ranked by ICC in the first two formats. Should he finish the year as no.1 across all three, he would have shaken up the pecking order in the pantheon of greats.

But for that he will have to excel on all three tours, particularly England, where he flopped in 2014. Some critics aver he is still vulnerable to late swing. Others argue that Kohli today is a vastly different player from three years ago. How he bats will prove one or the other section wrong.

This daunting journey starts in South Africa where the team flies out to just two days after the T20 series against Sri Lanka. And  after a two-day warm up match, the first Test begins, leaving little time for acclimatization. This explains why Kohli was critical of the domestic itinerary.

But that’s in the past. What the captain will be preoccupied with now is strategizing how the talent at his disposal (rich, going by current form and results) can be deployed to try and beat the South Africans on their own turf.

The presence of six fast bowlers (including Hardik Pandya) in the squad — and just two specialist spinners — gives an idea not just of the tactics Kohli and the team management are likely to pursue, but also how Indian cricket has evolved.

Clearly, the strategy is to fight the pace fire of the South Africans with their own.

This is revolutionary thinking. Even a decade back pace was never India’s strong suit when playing overseas. Spin was the main bet. In the past few years, there has been a preponderance of fast bowlers.

Competition for places — as in the batting — has also seen a rise in quality. India’s pace attack today can boast of high  speed, skill and fine  variety.

Whether this is good enough to quell South African batsmen remains to be seen. But there will be enough of the fast and short stuff from the Indian side too for sure: a great psychological boost that teams in the past lacked.

This does not mean spin bowling is devalued. Since pitches in South Africa are likely to assist pace, India are likely to shore up the batting with six specialists.

This leaves only one place open for either Ashwin or Jadeja and whoever plays will have to be in top form. One must feel for young Kuldeep Yadav, unlucky not to find a place. But with opportunity for spinners likely to be severely limited — and Ashwin and Jadeja amongst the wickets — it made more sense to take an extra fast bowler.

Bumrah, rewarded for hard work and sustained improvement, could well be the X factor with his awkward style and sharp skills. Getting veteran Parthiv Patel as reserve wicket-keeper is canny thinking. He revels against the new ball, and can bat at the top or middle order.

Overall, I believe the selection has been excellent, keeping in mind the quality of the opposition and conditions likely to be encountered. But as experience show, while talent is obviously important, self-belief is even more  so when playing overseas. For the record, India have never won a Test series in either South Africa or Australia. If this barrier can be broken — even in one of the two series — Indian cricket will have scaled great heights. Kohli faces his most exciting — and stiffest — challenge yet.

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