"If you're not clear in your head then the feet don't move, you're not quite sure whether to play the shot or not, leave the ball or play the ball. I think these sort of things can creep in, and which have crept in our game in this series."
"The mindset has to be to score runs and find ways to score runs, You can't be too worried about getting out because you are [then] bringing the bowler into the game completely and not moving the game forward."
The two statements from Virat Kohli ring an almost similar tune. These were after the Test series loss in New Zealand in 2020 and World Test Championship final defeat. The two losses had a lot of similarities and they brought out glaring concerns. The first and obvious similarity was that batting failures were the major reason behind both the losses. The second " lack of clarity in the minds and planning. The batsmen had made too much of the damp and overcast conditions in New Zealand. And it kept playing in their heads. They succumbed to that confusion. They couldn't find the right balance between caution and aggression. Only one total of over 200 was registered in four innings. Kohli stressed on the importance of having a positive mind, after the series.
The brave approach talk was back again after the WTC final. In challenging conditions, India could manage only 217 and 170. The lack of clarity in the mind and planning was again palpable, especially in the second innings where the Indian batsmen seemed confused whether to accelerate or bide their time in the middle amidst disciplined and incisive New Zealand bowling. The shot selection went for a toss and they fell short.
Rohit Sharma getting out to Tim Southee in WTC final. AP
Kohli's message was clear after the match. Don't allow bowlers to dominate. Play more fearlessly and don't be worried about failures. And even hinted at a possibility of an overhaul.
"You have to reassess and replan and understand what dynamics work for the team and how we can be fearless. Bring in right people who have the right mindset to perform."
The reason for recasting the New Zealand tour performance is because if there is one country that comes close to mirroring its conditions, it's England. Batting has been India's primary concern in the past in both countries. And as they head into another five-match series, it will all be about how India bat. The intent talk has resurfaced. However, the biggest question is, how easy/difficult will it actually be to implement that positive/brave approach against top-quality English attack in challenging conditions? Is it really about playing aggressive cricket or it can be done with patience, perseverance, and resilience in testing and challenging conditions, just like the way Kane Williamson showcased in that final?
Every batsman is different and has their own quintessential approach. It will be interesting to see how they adapt to this brave/fearless approach, especially over a period of five Tests.
That clarity of mind will again be in focus.
The senior trio needs to fire in unison
A clear mind could bring much-needed consistency. In 2018, Kohli was the only one who consistently scored runs (593 at 59.30). The others contributed in patches. The solution to their batting problems could be in the three seniors " Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, and Cheteshwar Pujara, who form the fulcrum of the batting line-up " clicking in unison.
The senior trio will go into the series without big runs under their belt. And it puts them in a tricky position. Kohli has played some magnificent innings in tough conditions but that three-figure mark has eluded him. In the last one and half years (Since Feb 2020), the Indian captain has uncharacteristically averaged 24.64 from 14 innings. It's been around two years and 14 innings since he's got a century. Pujara and Rahane too are under pressure to score runs. The Saurashtra batsman has averaged just 28, with no tons, since his heroic efforts in the Australia series Down Under. Rahane too has gone century-less since that Melbourne ton in the Boxing Day Test last year and averaged 21.91 in the last 12 innings.
File image of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. AFP
All three, Kohli, Pujara, and Rahane, have scored runs in patches, at different times, and in the last few years they haven't clicked together. What made this Indian batting click was the three seniors firing together. From 1 Jan 2015 to 31 Dec 2019, the Kohli-Rahane pair scored the most partnership runs for India - 2499 and averaged 67.54. The Kohli-Pujara pair scored second-highest runs - 1878 at an average of 45.80. And the Pujara-Rahane partnership scored fourth highest runs - 1156, averaging 55.04. However, since 1 Jan 2020, their partnership averages read: Kohli-Rahane - 31.16 (187 runs from 6 innings with just two 50+ stands), Kohli-Pujara - 28.33 (170 from 6 inns with just one fifty stand), Pujara-Rahane - 19.66 (177 from 9 inns with no fifty-plus stands).
Litmus test for Rohit Sharma and the opening challenge
It will be a litmus test for Rohit Sharma as well who hasn't had a significant impact overseas. He's averaged just 27 from 37 inns, away from home. And with Mayank Agarwal out of the first Test after being hit on the helmet in the nets, the opening conundrum has become a lot more complicated. Who will open with Rohit? Debutant Abhimanyu Easwaran who has been a part of reserves, KL Rahul, who hit a ton in the warm-up game, Hanuma Vihari, who's spent decent time in England or Cheteshwar Pujara? It does increase the responsibility on Rohit's shoulders. In their last tour, the Indian opening partnership averaged just 23.70 and in New Zealand, it was 20.50. And providing that platform up top facing the new ball in hands of James Anderson and Stuart Broad won't be easy.
The series might provide an opportunity for the likes of Hanuma Vihari, KL Rahul to prove themselves again and get back their place in the side in case of injuries, ousters or the team decides to go in with an extra batsman. And even Agarwal when he comes back.
Important to get the team combination right
Along with batting, getting the combination right will be the key. India have got their selections wrong in the past. The 2018 Lord's blunder comes to mind straight away. Kohli picked two spinners and dropped a pacer despite the rain and overcast conditions. After getting battered in that Test, inside three days, Kohli admitted, they had read the conditions wrong. The selection came under the scanner in the WTC final as well, where India announced the team on the eve of the Test, and then despite rains washing off the first day and forecast of rains right through the match, they didn't change the eleven and stuck to three pacers and two spinners, while New Zealand reaped benefits of an all-pace attack.
Getting the balance right also adds to their challenges. The absence of a fast-bowling all-rounder has made the job tougher for the team management. India have favoured the five-bowler strategy in the last few years. However given their batting problems, should they add a sixth recognised batsman to provide cushion? This will mean an increased workload on the three pacers and the spinner. Should they be rigid with their two-spinner strategy? It means Ashwin and Jadeja will provide batting depth in a weak lower-order but it would also mean taking the conditions out of the equation and entering the same selection blunder loop if it's overcast and rainy. Should they go in with four pacers and one spinner? This would mean having a long tail that is fragile.
They will need to play Shardul Thakur who can bat a bit as he showed in Australia. But he mostly comes last in the pecking order of pacers and how much consistency can they expect from him given that he's first-class average of just 16.58.
It's going to be tricky and India need to get it right.
The tail problem and need to deliver the knock-out punch
In the last England tour, India found themselves in the position of ascendency quite a few times but couldn't maintain sustained pressure. And that somehow stemmed from their long-standing problem of struggling to get the lower-order out.
Kohli and Co will have bitter memories of the hurt and frustration Sam Curran piled on in the last tour with some match-turning innings. The lower-order partnership averaged 27.25 in comparison to India's 16.3 and stitched six fifty-plus stands, scoring at a healthy rate of 4.03 runs an over. While this Indian bowling attack has developed into one of the best in the world, they need to learn the art of delivering the knockout punch quickly after applying the choke.
The Ben Stokes-sized hole for England and batting problems of their own
For England, things haven't started off on the best of notes. Their premier all-rounder " Ben Stokes " has withdrawn from the tour to focus on mental wellbeing and rest the injured left index finger. It's a massive blow given that he provided so much flexibility and balance. Their rest and rotation policy had come under criticism with heavy defeats in India and against New Zealand at home.
Joe Root had said that the 'rest and rotation is behind us and they will be trying to play their strongest side over the next five Tests to build up for the Ashes. They have brought back Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, and Sam Curran who were rested for the New Zealand series at home.
However, Stokes' withdrawal might again bring the rotation policy into focus. And with gruelling schedule coming up it will be interesting to see whether they indeed go in with a full-strength team in all five Tests. In absence of Stokes, Curran's role becomes even more important.
England will look to sort out batting problems of their own. Since the start of this year, the top order (1-3) has averaged just 20.84 from eight matches. In this period, Burns has averaged 37, Sibley " 21.35, Bairstow " 23.85, Zack Crawley " 10.25 and Dan Lawrence " 13.25.
In their last home series against India, the top six had averaged almost as much as the lower order (28.38) " 28.72.
Haseeb Hameed, who burst onto the scene with an impressive series against India, back in 2016 hasn't played a Test since that tour and endured a bumpy ride. He's found his mojo back though and has been included in the squad again. He will, however, form a backup top-order option and if the opportunity arises would look to bring those glory days back on the big stage once again.
While there are fewer concerns with regards to bowling, they will need to choose between Dom Bess and Jack Leach for the spinner's slot. Leach was one of the shining lights on the disappointing India tour earlier this year but hasn't played at home in the last two years and he has let his frustrations known while Bess hasn't set the stage on fire but provides batting depth. After a difficult Indian tour, he had admitted that he started hating cricket but has bounced back with decent performance for Yorkshire in the County circuit. Whoever gets selected, England will demand consistency from their spinner which was missing on the Indian tour.
Curran will in all probability take that all-rounder's role while England would look to rotate the rest four " Anderson, Broad, Mark Wood, Craig Overton, and Ollie Robinson " in the pace department.
In the spotlight
Rishabh Pant: He burst onto the Test arena charging down the track and depositing Adil Rashid into the stands to get off the mark in Test cricket, off just his second ball three years ago. Five innings later, he provided a glimpse of the destruction he could cause with a maiden Test century at The Oval. He will have fond memories of his debut tour. Since that England tour, he's traveled a roller-coaster and lately undergone drastic improvement. Those impact innings on the Australia tour and England series at home showed that he's the pressure man who has the ability to change the course of the game single-handedly. He is a 'confidence' player and with momentum on his side, he could be the game-changer. Go back and watch that reverse sweep of Anderson in Ahmedabad and you will understand the outrageous things this kid can do.
Joe Root: Given the recent batting struggles, Root becomes extremely crucial in that English batting line-up. He put on a masterclass against spin on the Sri Lankan and Indian tours. However, he hasn't had a similar impact at home for a while. In the last two years (since 24 July 2019), the England captain has averaged just 30.86, compare this to his average of 55.38 before this period and you can see the stark difference. He's gone 25 innings without a century at home now and hit just five fifties. He will form the pillar of the batting line-up and England will need to get back to his best at home to solve their batting woes.
While it's mid to late summer in England, the pitches might assist some spin, especially at Manchester and Oval. And that's where India's two quality spinners might provide them with an upper hand. However, in all probability, England will look to prepare pace-friendly pitches for home advantage. As much as batting and bowling, the slip catching will again be pivotal. In the 2018 series, both teams had a tough time in the slip cordon and it had a huge impact on the series.
The 2021 series marks the start of the second cycle of the World Test Championship. The battles within battle will add to the intrigue and excitement. Kohli vs Anderson, Ashwin vs left-handers, Rishabh Pant vs any and every bowler, Root vs the spinners. With India looking to end the 14-year drought on English shores and England looking to maintain that stranglehold and go into the Ashes high on confidence, we are in for another fascinating series.