The cycle of Indian cricket has yet again turned to Sri Lanka in the hope of providing a fresh beginning.
It was in 2015 when India went to Sri Lanka to play Virat Kohli’s first full series as a captain. It started off on a bad note, a dispiriting loss in the first Test followed by a tremendous turnaround to win the series 2-1.
Since then, India have not taken a step back, winning every Test series they have played in. They return to the island country as the No 1 Test team, firm favourites. But this series will also herald the start of something new: the beginning of the era of new head coach Ravi Shastri.
Stranger in a familiar land
Of course, it is important to remember that the new head coach is not a stranger to this team. As the former team director, he is more than familiar with this team’s members, having memorably roused them after their defeat in Galle in the first Test last year. In one way, his elevation to head coach from team director is not much more than a titular formality.
In another way though, and thanks to the nasty events of the last two months, it is something bigger. From the time, the Board of Control for Cricket in India announced applications for the coach’s post to previous incumbent Anil Kumble’s resignation to Ravi Shastri’s appointment, it has been a protracted, dragged-out period of chaos. Shastri wasn’t even in the running in the first round, he tossed in his hat later.
And hence while Sri Lanka may not be lofty opposition – they are currently ranked seventh in Tests, lost an One-Day International series to Zimbabwe and had to put in a superhuman effort to beat the same opposition in the lone Test – this series will be important because it finally gives the chance for Virat Kohli, Ravi Shastri and the rest of the team to put the chaos behind them and breathe in to a fresh beginning.
And make no mistake, for all the platitudes they have sung, it will not be easy.
A change of fate
For one, 2017 is not 2015. Then Virat Kohli was still a young, fresh skipper. He was still feeling his way into the captaincy, tweaking, realising, understanding. Now, he is a confident leader in charge of a world-beating (at least, at home) team. He is the undisputed leader, among the best batsmen of his generation. The Kohli which Shastri nurtured in 2015 has matured into a lean, solid winning machine in 2017.
But there may have also been a personality change. The Kohli in 2017 may be much more guarded, much more cynical, much less respecting of dissent as he was in 2015. The Anil Kumble reign and its subsequent ugly fallout may have made him a different character and one which Ravi Shastri will have to adapt to.
And then, even Shastri will know he is under the weight of expectation. His appointment as coach did not received universal applause and there was much criticism directed at the BCCI for the way in which they went about the entire process. The long imbroglio with the Cricket Advisory Committee over the nature of the coaching staff did not paint Shastri in much glory. He is now the new head coach but he will be aware, along with the captain that even the slightest misjudgement now will open the floodgates of criticism.
Tougher gigs await
Sri Lanka should also, in theory, be the easiest of away tours for India but it has be treated as preparation ground for more important assignments. India travel to South Africa later this year and England in 2018, two places where they have never enjoyed much success. It’s a trend which Virat Kohli has admitted he wants to change. These are not the ideal circumstances to begin a fresh assault at a peak which has stubbornly remained unconquered – but adversity has often seen this Indian team punch way above their best.
Moving away from Kohli and Shastri, two other players will also be under heightened expectations, this series. Shikhar Dhawan has not played a Test match in Indian colours since October 2016 against New Zealand. Injuries and loss of form have kept the 31-year-old left-hander, once a certainty in the team, out of it. He has rediscovered his mojo in coloured clothing, but Murali Vijay’s injury has given him another chance to stake his claim.
Then there is Rohit Sharma. He has often been criticised for not replicating his incredible ODI batting form into the Test arena but silenced quite a few doubters when he hit three consecutive fifties in three Tests in the New Zealand Test. Unfortunately, injury took him out of the team and it seemed like he was set for a long period out when Karun Nair slammed a triple century against England.
But Nair’s run of poor scores since then has opened the door for Sharma again and it is imperative that he grabs it. That lower middle order has, at times, been a cause of concern for India and Sharma, more than the other contenders for that spot, is a great fit. The reason is, he is not unduly troubled by the short ball which will put him in great stead in overseas conditions against the second new ball. He is also an aggressive batsman and quite capable of launching a counter-attack against an opposition just when they believe India are on the ropes.
The picturesque Galle fort as a backdrop, the lilting papare band, the rhythm of the sea waves...Sri Lanka conjures up images of relaxation and rest. That is what Shastri, Kohli and the Indian team will be hoping for – a series to put the ugliness of the past and the heartbeak of the Champions Trophy final behind and once more, focus only on cricket.