India Test captain Virat Kohli has hinted that he will stick to a five-bowler strategy in Sri Lanka. Under Kohli, India had played five bowlers in the one-off Test against Bangladesh as well. Now, speaking ahead of his team’s departure for Sri Lanka, he once again stressed the importance of taking 20 wickets in a Test match, while also pointing out that such a strategy will require his bowlers to chip in with the bat too when required.
“That [playing with five bowlers] could be a big possibility. The idea is to take 20 wickets,” Kohli said. “That’s that only way you win a Test match and I strongly believe we need to have the best bowlers playing in the squad.”
R Ashwin is a competent batsman, while Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Harbhajan Singh can also be handy. Ashwin has scored 1009 runs in 25 Tests, including two centuries and four fifties an an average of 36.03, while Bhuvneshwar finished as the fourth-highest run-getter for India on the tour of England in 2014, with 247 runs in five matches – 25 more than Cheteshwar Pujara and 113 more than Kohli himself. Harbhajan also has the distinction of scoring two centuries of his own, consecutive ones against a New Zealand attack that included Chris Martin and Daniel Vettori.
Kohli has called for more from each of the three to pave the way for a successful six-batsmen/five-bowler combination. “We have people like Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Harbhajan Singh, who are very handy with the bat”, Kohli said. “Ashwin averages about 40 in Test-match cricket. So, I don’t see any reason why he can’t be the allrounder for us. It is all about giving people goals and asking them to improve on certain aspects and provide that extra balance the team requires. I strongly feel that you have to play a stronger bowling side to win Test matches. And your batsmen have to take more responsibility, which is challenging but at the same time it is exciting.”
Kohli also confirmed that there is a three-way tussle among M Vijay, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan for the opening spots. “It has been a spot that has been contested very strongly,” he said.
When Dhawan was jettisoned for the Sydney Test in January this year, following poor returns of 167 runs in six innings, Rahul made his maiden Test century. Rahul had shaken off his forgettable debut in Melbourne, where he had only four runs in two innings while staying in the middle for only 18 minutes. But then he missed the Test in Bangladesh due to dengue fever, and Dhawan marked his comeback with 173 off 195 balls in a 283-run opening partnership with Vijay. Dhawan went on to be the leading run-scorer for India in the subsequent three-match ODI series, as the competition grew stiffer.
“We saw KL Rahul coming through Australia, batting really well,” Kohli said. “That was a time where Shikhar was not performing consistently. So, KL stepped in beautifully and now Shikhar has got runs again. Vijay has got runs for us consistently. So, its just a matter of shift in the balance.”
Vijay has been the most consistent batsman for India in recent Tests: the opener had tallied 402 runs in five Tests in England before piling up 482 in four Tests in Australia. “I think he [Vijay] has been a guy who has been very solid for us at the top of the order,” Kohli said. “He has really improved his game in the last one, one-and-a-half years. He has given us solid starts everywhere we have played Test matches over the past 12 months.”
There had been reports in the Indian media that Vijay had some injury concerns but Kohli expected Vijay to be “match fit” well before the start of the only tour game, which starts on August 6.
“No, I don’t see any issues with Vijay’s fitness,” Kohli said. “As far as I know, Vijay is almost 100% straightaway and I am sure he will be match fit even before the warm-up game.”
Kohli said that the opening combination would be picked on form after the three-day practice match: “Who is playing well at that particular stage. We have a warm-up game to see things in Sri Lanka as well. Problem of plenty is never bad. Might as well having three guys playing well rather than two guys not playing well and one playing well. I am not really worried about that.”
With Rohit Sharma being a natural stroke-maker, Kohli felt that giving him more time at No. 3 would bolster the middle order. “He is someone who, if he gets going, even in a Test match, he could take it away from the opposition. That could actually be the difference between winning a Test match and lagging behind throughout.
“So, I think that was the whole idea. He has done well in Australia when he has batted at three. I think he needs to get more opportunity there. Once he settles there, he could be the catalyst in the middle order. He can keep the scoring rate going. He is so naturally gifted that once he gets in, he has got massive scores for Mumbai. We want to give him that game time and give him ample opportunity to get that big score and in quick time.”
Rohit has scored only 98 runs in three innings at No. 3 at an average of 32.66. At No. 6 he averages 50.37.
Kohli had recently turned out for India A in the second unofficial Test, against Australia A, in Chennai, where he had looked in good touch despite managing only 61 across both innings. He had worked with India A coach Rahul Dravid, he said. “I wanted to practice on pitches that are much more difficult as far as spinners are concerned. I got decent practice in the last one week.
“Sweeping is one aspect of the game I was always looking to improve upon. I played it a lot in Australia and I figured on turning wickets it is something you have to have as a batsman. He [Dravid] was helping me from the sidelines [during the A game], if he saw something that had to be corrected while playing that particular shot. That was indeed helpful, to have him closely monitor what I was trying to do.” (Courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)