Going into the Test series against Australia, India skipper Virat Kohli was expected to add to his excellent unbeaten run of 19 matches and complete a glorious home streak. His real challenge was expected to come later in the year when India tour overseas.
However, the stunning 333-run defeat inside three days in the first Test in Pune on Saturday has thrown up a major leadership challenge for Virat Kohli in his own backyard.
Virat Kohli, as stand-in skipper in the Adelaide Test on the 2014-15 series in Australia, impressed the world with an attacking approach and led with his batting, though India lost narrowly in the end.
He toned down that aggression after India lost the opening Test against Sri Lanka in Galle, dismissed for 112 chasing a target of 176 as the fell to spin. Kohli quickly revived the team to win the three-Test series from there and has grown in stature as skipper, leading with his fitness and intent to win by playing five bowlers. He has also been sensational with the bat, scoring double centuries in four successive series.
However, Kohli now has a week to regroup the side with coach Anil Kumble for the second Test starting in Bengaluru on March 4. Here are the issues he needs to tackle.
India batsmen’s spin woes
The dry Pune pitch was intended to boost Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, but it was India’s batsmen who were caught out by Aussie left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe, who took a record 12/70, and off-spinner Nathan Lyon.
After India were bundled out for 105 and 107, Kohli called the defeat ‘a reality check’. The first aim will be to restore the batsmen’s confidence as they failed to put up a fight after a rare failure for Kohli, dismissed for 0 and 13.
O’Keefe keeps it simple
The 32-year-old O’Keefe thrived by putting accuracy over sharp turn. Former India spinner Maninder Singh said Australia showed their combative qualities and had been thorough with their homework.
“Australia have come across as a bunch of fighters. Maybe India thought Australia will be easy meat, but they are not Kiwis (3-0) or England (4-0), who will give up after a couple of days,” he told Hindustan Times on Sunday.
“India thought if they prepare a pitch like this that would be it. But the job still has to be done on the field, and that is where we failed.”
O’Keefe, after an ordinary spell, was devastating after lunch on Day 2, which saw seven Indian wickets tumble for 11 runs. “If you see, O’Keefe got all his wickets off straighter deliveries,” said the former left-arm spinner. “Indian batsmen thought it will turn, but it didn’t. The most intelligent thing O’Keefe did was not trying any variation.”
India spinners repeatedly beat the bat with sharp turn and saw several catches put down off Australia skipper Steve Smith, who struck a brilliant second-innings century.
“To be honest, I thought this was one of the worst spells I have seen from Ashwin. But the reason could be, with a lead of 155, everybody thought another 50-60 runs and you could be on the back foot. Mentally they were gone. He was hurrying back to his bowling mark.
“I don’t think luck went India’s way at any stage with so many catches being dropped.”
Down on DRS reviews
Kohli will have to take a close look at how India use the DRS. In the second innings, both KL Rahul and Murali Vijay, sought and lost reviews after being given out leg before. “We are good players of spin on a good pitch. But on such a pitch, if the opposition bowler has his day, our batsmen will struggle.
“And in their hearts, Indian batsmen knew it was a big score. That is where your technique becomes bad, you get late on the ball or in your decision making.”
However, Maninder expects India to bounce back.
“I don’t expect the Bangalore pitch to be this bad,” said Maninder, who took a 10-wicket haul in the iconic Bengaluru Test against Pakistan in 1986, when India lost narrowly.
“I believe in this Indian team. I am hoping this team will comeback, with Virat and Anil there. Australia, with a lead like that, will be a different proposition. At the same time, I feel India will gather themselves.”