Sri Lanka in India

Ahead of Sri Lanka series, Virat Kohli and India rightly have South Africa on their mind

The hosts have a series to win but with the South Africa tour looming, it is hard not to think ahead.

India’s home series against Sri Lanka ends on December 24 in Mumbai. Just about two weeks later, Virat Kohli and Co will play their first Test against South Africa at Cape Town on January 6. In between, they have a two-day practice match which begins on December 30 at Paarl.

Sounds like a case of bad scheduling ahead of a big tour? Well, that it is. The Tests against Sri Lanka will end by December 6 and in reality it should give the Test specialists more than enough time to get in the right mode for the challenge that South Africa’s wickets and bowlers present.

But just one two-day practice match can never be enough. The BCCI still hasn’t made it clear whether these players will be sent to South Africa early to acclimatise or whether they will have to make do with whatever they can back in India itself.

On Wednesday, the Indian skipper said he “will ask for leave if needed” in December but from what was evident at the Eden Gardens, he has already started devising new ways to get ready for the pace and swing that will greet him in South Africa.

Thinking ahead

According to a report in The Hindu, Kohli got the top portion of his bat handle chopped off by a Cricket Association of Bengal member during India’s practice session at the Eden Gardens on Tuesday.

A super short handle means that the batsman has to stretch well forward to make proper contact with the ball. It helps to get the feet moving and is especially useful if you are trying to get better against the moving ball – a problem that still seems to haunt Kohli.

Hence, at the Eden, he had to go down low for his front-footed drives. It also helped tighten his stance. The short handle also helps with the cut and the pull shot given that the bat speed is faster. But that’s not all he did – the Indian skipper also spent a fair degree of time working on his back-foot game.

This is not a drill you would do for playing in India. This is a drill to get ready for South Africa. Clearly, Virat is thinking long-term here.

The BCCI still hasn’t made it clear whether India's Test specialists will be sent to South Africa early to acclimatise (Image: PTI)
The BCCI still hasn’t made it clear whether India's Test specialists will be sent to South Africa early to acclimatise (Image: PTI)

In a way, perhaps, Cheteshwar Pujara gave it away a few days ago when he said that he feels the Sri Lanka Tests are ideal preparation for South Africa tour. Well, one isn’t quite sure about the ideal bit but for the Test specialists it is time spent in the middle.

“Obviously, next year’s South Africa series is something that is there at the back of my mind,” Pujara had said. “The upcoming Sri Lanka series will be a good opportunity to prepare for the South Africa assignment. I am confident of doing well.”

He added, “I believe once we assemble to play the Test series against Sri Lanka, there will be some serious discussions on the South African tour. There will be strategies and plans in place.”

This was Pujara, in a very matter-of-fact way, saying that the South Africa series is more important for India than the one against Sri Lanka.

Lions at home...

Since 2010, India have won 11 Tests abroad (out of a total of 41), which sounds pretty good when you consider their overall record. But then, of these 11, six have come against Sri Lanka and three against the West Indies. The other two wins have come against South Africa (during the 2010-’11 tour) and England (during the 2014-’15 tour).

These numbers mean that India’s preparation for South Africa has to be top notch. For too long have India been champions on featherbeds back home but little more than novices elsewhere.

In the past, we have seen Sachin Tendulkar playing with wet rubber balls on concrete pitches to prepare for Australia tours. He would ask fast bowlers to soak the rubber balls in a bucket of water and then bowl them at his rib cage at full speed. Then, he would also ask them to mix it up. The whole idea was that places like England, Australia, New Zealand and now, South Africa need the batsman to employ a very different set of strokes.

The Indian batsmen have these strokes but unless you are used to playing them, they just don’t come out right in a match. The great Vijay Merchant, who was described as the soundest batsman in India by Douglas Jardine, prepared for England tours by scheduling his nets early in the morning.

The misty sea atmosphere would make the ball swing and the dew on the wicket would make in seam and skid. Most importantly, he learned how to leave the ball well. It was simple but effective.

Players like Rahul Dravid have spoken of how they used to prepare for difficult tours abroad (Image: AFP)
Players like Rahul Dravid have spoken of how they used to prepare for difficult tours abroad (Image: AFP)

Rahul Dravid, too, has spoken about the methods he employed early in his career.

“From my point of view, especially early on in my career, when I was going to places which had conditions that I was not necessarily used to, I would try and replicate whenever it is possible. It is hard to replicate conditions of Australia in India, however hard we may try. But, things like playing with a hard plastic ball or wet tennis ball, we used to do a little bit of that.

“Also sometimes, we try to recreate the conditions by asking the groundsman to maybe leave a little bit of grass in the wicket when you practice in the nets, or asking the bowlers to bowl from 18 or 20 yards, a little ahead of the crease, to get used to the pace.”

There are still others like former India skipper Sourav Ganguly, who under the pretext of shooting an advertising feature in Australia trained under Greg Chappell in a bid to sort out his problems against short, rising deliveries ahead of the 2003-’04 tour.

It is inevitable that when the Indian team goes on tour later this year, the opposition will focus much of their energies on the job of cutting down Virat Kohli. He is the team’s finest batsman and the skipper too. But by starting his preparations early, he has shown that he will spare no effort in making sure he is up to the challenge. The other batsmen need to exactly the same too.

And I have said it before and perhaps it is worth mentioning again because the BCCI has not made any announcement yet – the Test specialists must go to South Africa as early as possible. Given that they have almost one month after the Sri Lanka Tests, the BCCI must remember that by failing to prepare, one is only preparing to fail.

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