It was the pitch that spiced up an otherwise calm India-South Africa series. After the team director Ravi Shastri’s angst over the pitch in Mumbai received wide publicity, it was the centre square that was again the focus of everyone’s attention on a quiet Monday afternoon at Mohali. Entering the Test series after losing both the ODI and the T20 series, the fear of anything untoward happening in the Test series is not misplaced.
It was meant to be an optional training session for India on an overcast, foggy afternoon. The stadium wore a silent look --- no fans in the stands, no extra deployment of police personnel either. Just a handful of Indian players — Virat Kohli, Murali Vijay and Ravichandran Ashwin— showed up.
But with the prospect of facing a resurgent South Africa weighing heavily on their minds, the entire India think-tank minus Ravi Shastri walked straight to the pitch, still a work in progress with the Test starting on Thursday.
Backing the demand
Mahendra Singh Dhoni may have quit Test cricket, but he didn’t hold back when asked whether India should prepare a turning track to exploit home conditions. Dhoni argued that it is only fair India preserved and fed on their strength— spin.
Daljeet Singh, the pitch curator, got a warm hug from Kohli and bowling coach Bharat Arun. Assistant coach Sanjay Bangar and fielding coach Ramakrishnan Sridhar completed the team of examiners as well as instructors for what was clearly a request and expression of preference for a turner. It didn’t require any guesswork to make out what India would prefer. The animated conversation between Daljeet Singh and the team management made it evident that India are unlikely to face difficulty in winning over the Mohali curator.
Test mode again
Kohli, other than fixing the issues around pitches, also has to fine-tune his game. With an excess of limited-overs matches preceding the Test series, Kohli knows what impact any kinks that could have developed in his game do in an important Test series. Overcoming the tendency to poke outside off-stump, and the urge to go after every delivery, all these were Kohli’s immediate priorities.
He switched to his successful stance that has fetched him five centuries and two half-centuries in the last eight Tests — taking a middle-stump guard and standing half-a-foot outside the crease. Kohli’s preparation was to throw the bowler off his length and at the same time find extra time to handle pace.
Vijay and Kohli batted on adjacent net pitches, one standing a foot ahead of the other. Kohli knows what works for him, and Vijay knows that what works for Kohli may not work for him. Taking throw downs from 17 yards, the majority of them bouncers, Kohli was keener on tightening his off-side game; and that meant leaving a lot of deliveries alone. The flick, cut and wristwork of Vijay, though, was applauded by Kohli every time. More than the shots, Vijay’s return after missing out on a couple of Tests in Sri Lanka would have been assuring for Kohli.
Playing alongside Ashwin kept Kohli in a happy frame of mind as well. Ashwin went all out, bowling without as much as a grimace, having just recovered from a side strain. He occasionally dismissed his captain, and beat his edge on a few occasions. Kohli saw the bigger picture in those small defeats, that his bowling mainstay is ready, and regaining his rhythm.