India vs Australia 2017

Preview: In Ranchi, Virat Kohli needs to cut through the talk and pick his battles wisely

The Indian captain can’t get affected by Australia’s tactics of mental disintegration.

James Sutherland (Cricket Australia CEO). Darren Lehmann (Australian coach). David Saker (Australia’s fast bowling coach). David Warner, Mathew Wade and Nathan Lyon (current cricketers on-tour). Mitchell Johnson (ex-cricketer).

These are the prominent people representing Australian cricket (in some or other capacity) who have spoken about Virat Kohli and DRS-gate since the end of the second Test. Their count is seven, one for each day that has passed since India levelled the series in Bengaluru.

The words have changed a bit as the days went by, ranging from harsh criticism of Kohli’s statement in the post-match press conference, to questioning his motives, to brandishing his poor run of scores in this series, and finally, to the routine “pressure on him” line. It is the classic Australian routine – mental disintegration as termed by Steve Waugh – and the visitors have gone to town on getting at the Indian captain. Add to it, the endless barrage of headline-making pieces put up by a majority of Australian media houses, painting Kohli in a villainous light (some did not even spare coach Anil Kumble).

Australia have been obsessed with Kohli

This peculiar attention is not anything new for Kohli. Back in November, when England had come calling for a five-Test series, their demeanour towards the Indian skipper and pitches-on-offer was near similar. Yet, there was this obvious gentlemanly tone about the manner they – both the English team and visiting media – concentrated on him. Almost as if they revered a player of his calibre, and were happy to be dominantly beaten by him in the way they were. Australia, though, have stretched this mental warfare to an astounding, and tedious, proportion.

Perhaps it is so because, in contrast to English cricket, they are only too well versed with Kohli, thanks to his successful tours Down Under in 2011 and 2014. So, they trained their guns on him, from the word go, and even more so, after this DRS incident. To say, Australia cricket – in its entirety today – is obsessed with Kohli, is an understatement.

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Of course, Kohli doesn’t let go easily either. He has a strange affinity for Australia as well. He wants to be at his best against every international team, true to form, but it probably hurts more when there is a failure against this particular opponent. And whether scoring runs or not, he is at his talkative best against them.

There are many colourful stories emanating from Bengaluru about how Kohli lost his cool in the dressing room after his second innings’ dismissal. Anybody would, in the doubtful way he was adjudged out, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if some water bottles flew about when he returned to the dressing room as well.

“Virat was really pumped up. He is a big match player. He wanted to succeed very badly in this innings. But it was a normal reaction of a batsman in the dressing room when he gets out cheaply,” said assistant coach Sanjay Bangar, after the third day’s weird incidents in the second Test.

Kohli reacts after his dismissal in the second innings of the Bengaluru Test. Image credit: IANS
Kohli reacts after his dismissal in the second innings of the Bengaluru Test. Image credit: IANS

Kohli’s downfall = India’s downfall

His words underline whatever happened afterwards. The skipper made up for his frustrations and led the line on day four as India defended a meagre target. The chatter began afterwards and it hasn’t stopped until now, and probably won’t till the last ball of this series has been bowled in Dharamsala. The question to ask, here is, who will blink first? And not in the manner of admitting defeat, but rather in getting back to the task at hand, of scoring runs and winning games for their country.

Following the pattern of Australia’s verbal attack on Kohli then, it is easy to see where they want to hurt him now. He has scores of 0, 13, 12 and 15 in four innings in this series. India have scored 107, 105, 189 and 274 in each of those instances. Clearly there is a connection here with this downturn in scoring runs and the team’s best batsman across formats.

It is not to say India are keenly dependent on Kohli, for this home season has shown Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara to be among runs as well. At different times, KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane have contributed too, seasoned batsmen as they are. Yet, the common streak through the 11 Tests so far (15 if the West Indies tour is considered) is Kohli. He has been ever-present, and his consistency has been awe-inspiring, reflected amply in the 1497 runs (average 68.04) he has scored since the start of India’s Test campaign in the Caribbean (July 2016).

Until the start of this Australian series, Kohli’s form defied statistical analysis. From the West Indies tour until Bengaluru, he alone has scored nearly 20 per cent of India’s total runs. But in an unbeaten run until the Pune Test, how do you quantify his form suitably? As such then, the underlying point isn’t in the weight of runs, but in the manner he has scored them.

At times, he has looked at ease, resembling a walk in the park, whilst scoring his double hundreds in Antigua and Hyderabad. At other times, he had to grind out the runs, batting time in the second innings at Rajkot or indeed negotiating awkward bounce in Kolkata against New Zealand. Mostly though, he has simply been ruthlessly efficient, overpowering the Black Caps in Indore, and the English in Visakhapatnam and Mumbai.

Time to pick your battles

When at the crease, Kohli demands complete attention from the opposition and liberates the other batsman to do his own thing. He keeps the board ticking, batting like an enforcer, becoming the focal point of the game’s progress. The Indian team is missing this dominant streak in the current encounter against Australia.

Coming to Ranchi then, the fate of this series boils down to how the Indian skipper copes with pre-match focus ranging from off-field battles to a pitch expected to stay low and assist turn from the offing.

Kohli isn’t one to buckle down, but can he sieve through the Australian “mental disintegration” barrage, and fight the most vital battle?

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