India vs England, 1st Test: Virat Kohli’s sternest challenge, as captain and batsman

And so India’s long overseas Test wagon enters its next phase, with five Tests against England starting in Birmingham on August 1. India, No 1 in the ICC Test Championship, a position solidified with a hugely successful 2017 that featured subcontinent series wins over Bangladesh, Australia and Sri Lanka (twice).

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India, who in South Africa at the start of the year were beaten 1-2 in the Tests. India, whose next overseas Test assignment is four matches in Australia from December 6. India, who are without Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Wriddhiman Saha.

For the leader of the ship, Virat Kohli, these five Tests provide opportunity to succeed as a team – and follow where only Ajit Wadekar, Kapil Dev and Rahul Dravid have been – and individually.

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Kohli’s game has improved, the records have rolled over, series have been won home and away and with his rise, so too has his confidence reached unprecedented heights. But this is England, the one country where Kohli has yet to stamp his class; four years ago, he averaged 13.40 in five Tests with that weakness outside off stump relentlessly exposed by James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Four summers later, Kohli is a much better batsman, captain of a very successful Indian team and with several records ticked off. He will be far more confident this time than he could have been in 2014.

And yet there is a pattern to his batting that England will have studied.

In 2017, Australia toured India for four Tests. Kohli played the first three and averaged 9.20, with a highest score of 15. His worst returns for a series of more than two Tests. How was he out?

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In Pune, on a sharply turning pitch that was later deemed ‘poor’ by the ICC, the Indian captain was out for 0 and 13. In the first innings, he chased at his second delivery, bowled by left-arm quick Mitchell Starc, and edged to first slip. Kohli did not even wait to suss out the surface of the bowler. He just threw his hands at an away-moving delivery and was gone.

In Bengaluru, he made 12 – out lbw to Nathan Lyon – and 15. In India’s second innings, Kohli reviewed an lbw decision against Josh Hazlewood. Ultra Edge showed an impact at nearly the same times the ball appeared to be hitting the pad. Hawk Eye termed it the umpires’ call and the decision stood. In Ranchi, Kohli got to 6 and chased a wide half-volley from Pat Cummins and was snapped up at second slip.

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In South Africa earlier this year, Kohli averted 47.66 from three Tests and was comfortable the highest run-getter on either side. But again he struggled against deliveries in line with the stumps. Thrice he was dismissed to deliveries from seam bowlers on the stumps, as this detailed analysis  by CricViz highlights so well.

There was another worrying pattern to emerge from South Africa, which led some to question whether Kohli was going backwards in terms of maturity as a captain. His verbal outbursts, his theatrics, his incident with the match referee which led to him being docked 25% of his match fee and earned a demerit point from the ICC – his banal statements to the media and some poor selection calls did nobody any good during that Test series defeat. India cannot afford a repeat of that in England. India need Kohli the motivator, not Kohli the aggravator.

Five Tests stretch the most prepared of teams, whether home or away. In India’s case, they are without their best pace bowler, best wicketkeeper and most promising quick. One of their openers bagged a pair in his last outing. Their dependable No 3, Cheteshwar Pujara, cannot buy a run against the red ball. The ghosts of 2014 cannot be allowed to resurface (you know, the series where they drew at Trent Bridge, won at Lord’s and then lost three Test in a row).

Kohli has it in him to beat the odds and the conditions. He is a slave to hard work and fitness. He is constantly seeking to improve. And if there’s one thing he has proven since the time he broke into the Indian team, its that he will change perceptions. It this hunger, this drive that is at the bedrock of Kohli’s game. It has helped him score five Test centuries in Australia and two in South Africa. It has helped him surpass Ricky Ponting to sit behind only Sachin Tendulkar in the list of ODI centurions. It has helped him become India’s most successful Test captain. Indeed, Kohli has come a long way since he was out c Baugh b Edwards twice on Test debut in the summer of 2011.

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Can India and Kohli succeed? Of course. This team is nothing if not confident against all teams in all conditions. It is arguably the hallmark of Kohli’s captaincy and the Indian team’s rise to No 1 in Test cricket.

Four summers ago, as India prepared to face England for five Tests in England, this writer pondered the possibilities that lay ahead. In isolation, what magic or mayhem could precede Kohli’s trips to the middle against a very good pace bowling attack. “It is both soothing and scary to imagine what can be achieved over the next six weeks,” I wrote of Kohli’s chances against England.

While the man himself has transformed plenty since then, the question of his success, and subsequently India’s, remain the same.