Rajkot, India embark on another series on home soil with the agenda of living up to their reputation. With series wins against South Africa and New Zealand brought about predominantly by their spin might, they have no reason to do anything different against England. Their cards are already out on the open and yet it is seemingly difficult to counter simply because the R Ashwin-led spin attack gives the impression of a straight flush.
England will be tracking all means possible to get a grip on Ashwin and Co. That battle is quite simply the one that is going to dictate the proceedings of the series. And yet, just ahead of the start of the series, Virat Kohli the Indian captain, preferred to look into other aspects of his team which he believed were key to his side’s consistent performances.
“It is a nice feeling when you win a series. It gives you confidence before you go to the next one every time we win a series. That is something we have been able to do. That is something that we want to keep achieving as a team. I know it’s not possible to do it all the time but we have that vision of winning Test matches and winning series more importantly. And for that you have to play hard-fought cricket and come back from difficult situations, which this team has done. That has given us a lot of confidence and belief in ourselves as a Test team.
“(We’re) not necessarily focused on individual performances. Players will keep improving over the course of time. I think the team has become stronger as a unit together and we are playing cricket as a unit. That is pretty evident on the field as well. That is something we are really proud of. As I said, we just want to continue the same habits and same things we have been doing in the last few series. Ashwin is obviously a world class bowler, we all know that. He is in good momentum. he has been bowling really well, bowling in the right areas. I just hope that he has another good series for Team India,” he said.
The numbers clearly define Ashwin as India’s biggest match-winner and influencer in the last few series but although it is an easy option to believe, Test matches are rarely won by the greatest of individual performances, be it batting or bowling, alone. These performances can, and mostly will, tilt the game towards a side but without the backing of the support cast, it rarely amounts to anything. The argument that great individual performances come without support from the others is an exception.
For Kohli, the biggest positive hasn’t been Ashwin’s efforts. “Well, we don’t set any goals as a team altogether. As a captain, I think my responsibility is to keep an environment in the dressing room where guys can express themselves. And that is something I have always looked to do. On the field, one thing we always maintain is that the intensity has to be high all the time. And because you want to make the opposition feel that they can’t afford to make a mistake rather than you giving them an opportunity to get back into the game. Those are the things we focus on. Pretty small targets. We don’t focus too far into the future.
“We don’t set any goals as such. We just want to keep improving as a side, which we have done. This team has brought in to the idea that a collective performance is far better than some individuals standing out and the team not winning. So that’s one thing that has been pleasing for me as a captain to see in this particular team. Everyone is really selfless, they play for the side, they play for the team demands in different situations. And I think that is the best quality of the side,” he said.
Over the course of time, under his captaincy, various players have come up with vital contributions even as Ashwin walks away with his ever-increasing tally of Man of the Series awards. Mohammed Shami’s reverse swing, Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s conventional swing, Ishant Sharma’s accuracy through long periods, Ravindra Jadeja’s relentless supporting acts have all at various times proved to be game-changers. To beat India, England will not only have to live through and thrive against Ashwin but battle past these seemingly smaller challenges as well. It is, as Kohli put it, ‘collectively’ that India has risen to be a formidable opponent.
“As a team we treat every day as a new day, we treat every opposition the same, we treat every session on the field as an opportunity for us to perform as a team. That is something we have been able to do. And not focus too much about who we are playing against but at the same time not have disrespect for the opposition. So I think this team has done really well and it is something we will keep looking to do in the future also,” said Kohli.
This series will be the first five-Test series in India since 1987 and Kohli is not one to escape the importance of setting the tone right at the beginning. “In a Test match series, momentum is very, very important and it gives the team an opportunity to set up a nice pace for the whole series because it’s very long and you play a lot of cricket. If every game goes for five days, then it’s 25 days of hard-fought cricket. You need momentum because you have various sessions and situations that you play in. As a team, you obviously want to be on top and win as many sessions and situations as possible. Momentum will be a key factor on which advantages and disadvantages will depend on. The momentum from the first game sort of defines if you have an advantage or a disadvantage as a team,” he said.
And neither did he give the impression of one who would be ready to sit back on the laurels of past wins. He refused to buy into the positioning of England as the underdogs and believed that there were still areas that his team could improve upon. “Since we came back from West Indies, we knew that the home season is going to be tough. We’re playing quality sides which have been doing well in Test cricket – New Zealand, England and Australia. So we knew it’s going to be a tough season at home, and for that we need to be more aware during crucial situations. There are areas we have addressed that need improvement. Even from the last series, we understood and improved on them in the last Test, especially losing wickets at key times – before and after breaks. That was something that really hampered us in the past.
“We saw immediate results in the third Test in Indore and we understand we need to keep improving as a team,” he said. “The mindset is not to compete anymore. We want to win series, we want to win Test matches. For that, you have to be at your A game all the time and also keep improving on your A game as well. That’s been the mindset and the guys are ready for the challenge.”